US chief justice presses for more efficient court, prison systems

The nation's top jurist, Warren E. Burger, is continuing his crusade to streamline the federal court system and upgrade the quality of US judges and justice.

In his year-end report released today, the chief justice of the United States calls for higher wages for federal judges and outlines steps that should be taken to relieve overburdensome caseloads in the courts.

Chief Justice Burger also wants broader development of prison industries programs - a project he has personally championed for the past two years. He points out that only 10 percent of America's inmates are involved in productive work (as opposed to Scandinavian prisons, where almost all of those incarcerated have jobs).

''Prisoners must be given the opportunity to learn marketable skills, both to repay the government some of the costs of confinement and to train them for life after release,'' explains the chief justice.

As a result of several conferences during 1984 in which Burger participated, a blue-ribbon task force of government leaders and industry officials has set up a National Center for Innovation in Corrections to implement specific recommendations for expanding prison industries. ''One immediate goal of the National Center for Innovation in Corrections,'' Burger says, ''is to raise inmate employment in prison industries from the current 10 percent national average to a 20 percent average.

''The long-range goal is a full 50 percent of inmates working within the next 10 years'' he adds.

In the past, the chief justice has urged Congress to remove federal restrictions on the sale of prisoner-produced goods and prodded states which ban inmate work-for-profit to remove these barriers. Some union groups have opposed prisoner work programs - terming them unwarranted competition in a tight job market.

Making a strong pitch for higher judicial salaries, especially for federal judges, Burger points out that inflation has reduced the real income of those on the bench to below the 1969 level (when the chief justice first took office). He says that many judges resign because of inadequate compensation and that ''too many lawyers now refuse (judicial) appointments'' for this same reason.

''Congress should approve a salary level that is sufficient to attract the most outstanding lawyers to the bench - and retain them,'' Burger states. He claims the public ''will support such a salary.''

Most of the chief justice's agenda for caseload relief in the Supreme Court and federal judiciary is not new. He has emphasized this need before the American Bar Association in his annual reports and in previous end-of-year messages.

Among his current recommen- dations:

* Establishment of a ''temporary intercircuit tribunal'' to relieve the US Supreme Court of cases that it now is required to handle because of conflicts of legal interpretation among the nation's 13 federal Circuit Courts of Appeal. Bills were introduced in both houses during the 98th Congress to bring this experimental tribunal into being. Burger says it could effectively reduce the burden on the high court.

* Creation of a federal courts study commission to assess future needs of the judiciary. Representatives of the three branches of government would serve in this congressionally mandated body.

* Selection of a commmission to formulate uniform sentencing guidelines for all federal offenses. The Comprehensive Crime Control Act of 1984 - passed by the 98th Congress - paved the way for such a change in the criminal justice system.

* Elimination of ''diversity of citizenship'' legislation which has long made it possible to bring lawsuits into federal court solely because the parties are citizens of different states. Burger points out that this reform alone could reduce the number of additional district court judges now needed for that purpose from 42 to 9.

Further, the chief justice would deal out stiff fines to lawyers who bring ''frivolous actions'' to court. ''The news media can serve the public by reporting the imposition of fines for discovery of abuse or filing of suits which are frivolous to all but the plaintiff and his attorney,'' he says.

Burger praised the development and increased use within the US legal system of dispute resolution methods as alternatives to costly and lengthy trials. He singled out summary jury trials, ''mini-trials'' (shortened hearings), and ''court-annexed'' arbitration as examples of successful ways to speed up the judicial process.

Summary jury trials have been used in Ohio to dispose of more than 100 suits without full judicial proceedings. In such trials lawyers present abbreviated arguments to jurors, who render informal verdicts that serve as guides for settlement of the cases.

of 5 stories this month > Get unlimited stories
You've read 5 of 5 free stories

Only $1 for your first month.

Get unlimited Monitor journalism.