New study points up need to unclog nation's courts

Overloaded court dockets, case backlogs, overworked judges, and a judicial system stretched at the seams - all pointing to increased chances that justice won't be served. That's the picture being painted by concerned jurists, government officials, and others across the United States.

The latest warning flare came this week from a study funded by the US Justice Department. It indicates that the number of criminal cases filed in the courts of 40 states and the District of Columbia increased by 31 percent from 1977 to 198l.

At the same time, civil case filings in state courts increased 22 percent and appellate court filings 32 percent in this same period.

Of the 82 million new cases now flooding the US judicial system, 98 percent are filed in state or local courts - the rest in federal jurisdictions.

This survey, conducted for the Justice Department by the National Center for State Courts and the Conference of State Court Administrators, is the first nationwide assessment of state court caseloads since the 1940s.

Steven Schlesinger, acting director of the Bureau of Justice Statistics, a Justice Department agency, calls the results ''important documentation of the substantially increased filings faced by most courts.

''We hope that policymakers at every level will consider the implications of these data,'' he says.

The Justice Department study comes on the heels of a number of impassioned pleas for help in unclogging the nation's courts. Among them:

* An appeal from Warren E. Burger, the chief justice of the US, who says that his court is up to its starched collars in writs of certiorari to review lower-court decisions. Mr. Burger wants to create a special temporary appellate panel to lighten the high court's load - by resolving circuit court conflicts. He also wants Congress to set up a high-level commission to study the court's overload and make recommendations on how to relieve it.

* A call by former US Attorney General Griffin B. Bell for the corporate sector to contain the litigation explosion by finding alternative methods for resolving business disputes.

''Litigation is almost like a game in this country, and we've got to get it under control,'' Mr. Bell is quoted as saying in the coming March 7 issue of The National Law Journal.

The former Justice Department chief suggests that judges could trim trial time by curbing abuses in pretrial motions.

Bell also says corporate officers should get in the habit of viewing the courtroom as a remedy of last resort.

* A suggestion by federal Judge Irving R. Kaufman of the US Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit that more civil suits be handled outside the courtroom through negotiation, mediation, and arbitration.

Among other things, Judge Kaufman advocates ''creative sentencing'' - where community service or restitution may be substituted for prison terms in the case of nonviolent crimes. This disposition of cases would lighten court loads, he says.

* A recommendation by many lawyers and judges that compulsory arbitration be employed in civil cases involving claims of less than $50,000 in damages. Three federal district courts - in Connecticut, eastern Pennsylvania, and northern California - are experimenting with this alternative.

The just-released Justice Department survey shows that Massachusetts leads the states with a 132 percent increase in new criminal cases over a four-year period ending in 1981. South Carolina showed a 127 percent jump and Oregon 78 percent.

In the same period, West Virginia's caseload dropped by 27 percent, Iowa's by 14 percent, and Vermont's by 8 percent.

The caseloads of appeals courts are increasing at a faster rate than civil and criminal suits, the study shows. Further, 65 percent of all new civil, criminal, and juvenile cases were related to traffic violations in 198l.

Cries of help to unclog the courts come at a time when some would reduce the judicial workload for ''political'' reasons.

Conservative groups, especially those representing the New Right, would strip the federal courts of jurisdiction in cases involving certain social issues, such as abortion, busing, and school prayer.

So far, legislation along these lines has failed to pass congressional muster.

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