'Costs of justice': Burger sets priorities for US system

Warren E. Burger, the nation's top jurist, is once again taking to the advocate's stump - calling for massive trims in the ''costs of justice'' in America.

In his annual report on the judiciary released today, Mr. Burger, the Chief Justice of the United States, calls for lawyers and litigants to seek alternatives to lengthy - and expensive - formal court trials through arbitration hearings, ''minitrials,'' and jury verdicts on limited aspects of a case.

His aim: to lift some of the burgeoning fiscal burden off taxpayers; to lighten court caseloads; and, in many instances, to effect swifter justice.

Chief Justice Burger points out that, in 1982 (latest figures available), the public footed a bill of $2.2 billion to process more than 8 million civil lawsuits filed in state and federal courts. An additional $4 billion was spent on criminal cases.

According to Rand Corporation estimates, between $200 and $300 in public funds is spent processing every case in state court. Federal cases often run five times that amount. And jury trials, on the average, cost twice that of cases decided by a judge.

However, ''the great majority of all cases filed in state and federal courts are settled without trial,'' Burger points out. ''Most settlements occur as a fixed trial date approaches.''

In advocating arbitration, the chief justice further explains: ''The imminent conduct of a hearing on a private dispute is a powerful impetus to settlement. The hearing need not be in regular court, however. The scheduling of an arbitration hearing has proved highly effective in motivating parties to settle.''

Burger cites the recent resolution of a multimillion-dollar contract dispute between the Wisconsin Electric Power Company and the American Can Company as an ''impressive example of the success of a minitrial.'' Here an out-of-court settlement was reached after each side presented a condensed version of its case to company representatives and a neutral third party. The result was ''substantial savings to both sides and to the public,'' the chief justice stresses.

Long a crusader for prison reform, including alternatives to what he calls ''human warehousing,'' Burger now is calling for ''the creation of institutions that train prisoners with marketable skills and let them engage in meaningful productive work to help pay the cost of prisons.''

He urges Congress to repeal laws that ''unnecessarily limit prison industries and discriminate against the sale or transportation of prisonmade goods.'' Some progress has been made recently along these lines, Burger points out, with the recent enactment of a statute that lifts the ban on use of convict-constructed signs and barriers on federally funded highway projects.

American taxpayers spend almost $17 million a day to house more than 400,000 prisoners in state and federal institutions. Burger indicates that needs for new incarceration facilities may well require expenditures of up to $10 billion over the next decade.

The chief justice also says the United States can learn a great deal about modern prison methods by studying procedures of other advanced nations. Last summer he led a group of public and private-sector representatives to observe Scandinavian prison industries systems. And he says he hopes this exchange of information will spur reform in the US.

''A correctional system that develops good work habits, fosters vocational training, reduces the cost of operating prisons, and assists prisoners in providing for their families and compensating victims, will benefit the entire country,'' Burger insists. ''Such prisoners will leave confinement with a marketable skill that may keep them out of crime.''

In regard to other issues, the chief justice urges Congress to:

* ''Resolve ambiguities'' to avert abuses in the bankruptcy court system.

* Create more federal judgeships to respond to burgeoning populations and resulting litigation in areas like southern Florida.

* Lift restrictions that mandate that the US Supreme Court review certain cases, including those where parties reside in different states. (This rule dates back to 1789 when there was some concern that local bias against citizens of another state might preclude a fair trial in a state court.)

* Form a ''temporary intercircuit tribunal'' to resolve conflicting judicial decisions by various federal circuit courts.

The last suggestion, which Burger proposed earlier before the American Bar Association, is aimed at relieving the Supreme Court's workload. The chief justice explains that such a court would take 40 to 50 cases off the Supreme Court calendar annually - and could be manned by sitting circuit judges, taking them away from their regular calendars just three or four weeks a year.

Although some court scholars still insist the Supreme Court is not overloaded with work, the chief justice rests his case on official statistics. Among them: In 1953, the court had 1,463 cases on the docket and issued 65 signed opinions. In 1982-83, it had 5,079 cases on the docket and issued 151 signed opinions.

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