NCPA - National Center for Policy Analysis

Making A Federal Case Out Of It

July 24, 2002

There used to be a phrase: "Don't make a federal case out of it." But over the years so many disputes have been federalized that we seldom hear it anymore.

In addition to political gridlock on Capitol Hill in the confirmation of nominees to federal judgeships, the federalization of crimes large and small is behind the backlog of cases before federal courts.

  • The U.S. Judicial Conference says the country needs at least 54 new judgeships -- without including the current 91 federal court vacancies due to the ailing confirmation process -- bringing the shortage up to 145.
  • Since 1990, the courts have added 19 judgeships -- an increase of 2.5 percent.
  • Meanwhile, federal appeals filings have risen 39 percent and filings in the federal district courts have gone up 22 percent.
  • It takes almost two years for the average federal civil case to get to trial and the number pending for at least three years has more than doubled since 1995.

Critics say we wouldn't need so many judges if Congress restrained its impulse to federalize every infraction of the law. Today, there are some 3,500 distinct federal crimes. More than 40 percent of these have been added since 1970 and roughly 25 percent since 1980.

Even worse, critics point out, Congress has embedded criminal prohibitions in at least 10,000 federal regulations.

Does it make sense that today 27 percent of the federal criminal caseload involves larceny, theft and fraud, and 7.3 percent of the cases involve drunk driving and traffic offenses? Should it be a federal crime to pretend to be a member of a 4-H Club? It is.

Source: Paul Rosenzweig (Heritage Foundation), "Congress Clogs Courts with too many Federal Crimes," USA Today, July 24, 2002.


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