Burger warns of growing Supreme Court caseload

Chief Justice Warren E. Burger is trying to get the nation's attention. Five other members of the court have individually spoken out, too.

The court can't keep up with its work, the chief justice says. He is using words like ''acute,'' ''threat,'' and ''menace.''

In a speech last week in New York, he warned that the court system ''may literally break down before the end of this century.'' The trouble: too many cases. They should be winnowed down, the chief justice says, before they reach the marble edifice in Washington where black-robed judges make decisions without appeal.

''In 1960, for example,'' he told a New York audience, ''there were approximately 45 federal cases which took more than one month to try.'' But that has now increased to 164. His solution? Specialized lower courts to sift out the congestion, more courts, and different kinds of courts.

Five other judges of the nine-member court in various recent individual speeches have called for limitations of the caseload. They are John P. Stevens, William J. Brennan Jr., Lewis J. Powell Jr., Byron R. White, and William H. Rehnquist. The chief justice has perhaps gone further than the others in his public statements.

District-court civil cases have increased seven times the population growth in 40 years, he notes, and court-of-appeals filings have increased 10 times. The chief justice asks Congress to stop enacting legislation ''creating new causes of (legal) action and enlarging federal jurisdiction.''

In order to speed up jury selection, he asks for more six-member juries (a system extended into 87 of the 94 federal districts in the past 10 years) instead of 12-member ones. He asks for more use of arbitration.

He asks for specialized courts to handle different cases: England, he notes, has divorce or family courts, a chancery court, a civil court for commercial and admiralty cases, and a separate criminal court. With faster procedures, he says, jurors in Britain ''are often seated in the box in 5 or 10 minutes,'' while it can take days in the US.

Chief Justice Burger admits that specialized tribunals may be abused if improperly staffed by ''tunnel-vision specialists.'' He takes an unexpected crack at lobbyists who are absorbed with a single issue. ''Another risk to be considered,'' he told a New York University audience Nov. 18, ''is that the single-issue lobby groups -one of the menaces to good government in America - might exert improper influence to place partisan 'single issue' judges on specialized courts.''

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