Washington — On Monday at 10 a.m., the bell rang. Toni House, the US Supreme Court's public-information officer, picked up the phone and reporters gathered around her desk.
The decisions the high court reached, the orders they were handing down, were confirmed by phone. Written confirmations were given to eager press hands.
No major decisions (at least in the media's view) today. They were waiting for the court's reading on the ''exclusionary rule'' - a decision that could shape the course of the nation's criminal justice system. Instead they got a ruling upholding the system used by the government to help settle disputes over eligibility for social security disability benefits. And the court bounced back to a lower court an affirmative-action case involving Boston police and firemen. (This would have been a major case had they decided it).
The court also indicated that it would later look at a case to determine whether a law student who failed a bar exam can use federal funds to sue the lawyer who graded the test.
With the court's current term headed for adjournment in early summer, the justices have stopped hearing cases for this year. Decisions on cases they have already reviewed will begin to trickle out each Monday - and perhaps at more frequent intervals next month.
Each term, more than 5,000 petitions for certiorari (review) and jurisdictional statements come to the US Supreme Court via state courts or a US Court of Appeals. The justices agree to look at 150 to 175 of these cases - allowing about 30 minutes of oral arguments for each one.
In 1933 the court was asked to look at 1,000 cases a year. They took about the same number they take now. Thus in 1933 the justices looked at 15 percent of the cases for which review was sought compared with 3 percent now.
The litigation explosion has brought a crisis in the court that Chief Justice Warren Burger has said can be alleviated by creating a temporary National Court of Appeals.
Such a court, he says, would be designed to relieve the high court of some of its workload while Congress conducts a full-scale study of the problem with an eye toward permanent changes.
Is this what is needed? Most of Mr. Burger's colleagues say it is. But some offer variations on the Burger theme. The latest: Associate Justice William H. Rehnquist, who says the real solution is to reduce the workload of the entire federal judiciary - not only that of the nation's highest court.
Talking to jurists-in-residence at St. Louis University recently, Justice Rehnquist suggested the formation of a blue-ribbon commission to study the problems of all federal courts.
''The docket congestion in the Supreme Court of the United States is directly related to the docket congestion in the courts of appeals and the supreme courts of the states, just as docket congestion in the courts of appeals are directly related to docket congestion in the district courts,'' Mr. Rehnquist points out.
What can be done to scale down the workload of lower federal courts so fewer cases will be bucked up the US Supreme Court?
Justice Rehnquist makes these recommendations:
* End ''diversity jurisdiction.'' This law, enacted in 1789, enables a party to sue in federal court if the opposing party is a resident of another state, even if the law governing the case is concededly state law. Mr. Rehnquist says this was originally passed because it was felt that in the newly-formed nation, local prejudices might harm the cause of an out-of-staters. Most of these sectional biases now have disappeared, he argues.
* Upgrade state courts by paying judges higher salaries and improving the quality of the system. Many lawyers are said to feel that the federal court system is of decidedly better quality than the state courts, and they resist efforts to restrict what may come before a federal judge.
* Remove from the federal courts certain types of cases that he says rightly belong in the state courts. Justice Rehnquist cites prisoners' complaints (which are unrelated to constitutional issues); truth-in-lending disputes (some of which are governed now by federal law); and motor-vehicle fraud as areas best left to the states.