Rehnquist warns that Congress is burying federal courts with new cases

January 01, 1992|By Los Angeles Times

WASHINGTON -- The federal courts are in danger of being overwhelmed if Congress persists in assigning U.S. judges the responsibility of handling new cases involving guns, drug murders and sexual assaults, Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist said yesterday in a year-end report.

A former Phoenix attorney, Chief Justice Rehnquist compared the federal court system to a Western desert town facing overdevelopment amid a water shortage.

"In that situation, we must conserve water, not think of building new subdivisions," he said.

Most criminal cases have "traditionally been reserved to state courts," while the federal courts have been reserved for "issues where important national interests predominate," he said.

Yet Congress in the past year has created a federal death penalty for dozens of crimes. Moreover, it seriously considered measures that would have made murder with a gun a federal crime and would have given female rape victims a right to file civil suits against their accusers in federal court.

Both measures would have sent tens of thousands of new cases into the already overburdened U.S. court system and eroded its ability to handle disputes fairly and expeditiously, the chief justice said.

He renewed his request to Congress to limit the ability of state death row inmates to appeal their cases repeatedly in federal courts. The Supreme Court recently limited inmates' rights to file habeas corpus petitions, and the chief justice urged Congress to pass a bill that would give such inmates only one chance to appeal in federal courts.

"Unless actions are taken to reverse current trends, or slow them down considerably, the federal courts of the future will be dramatically changed," he said. Judges will not be able to spend much time on cases or feel the same "sense of personal responsibility and accountability for the work they produce. Unless checked, the result will be a degradation in the high quality of justice the nation has long expected of the federal courts."

The federal courts have 649 trial judges and 179 appeals judges. The 1992 budget for the judiciary is $2.3 billion.

The year-end report noted that the fastest-growing types of cases include fraud related to the savings and loan crisis (up 21 percent in 1991) and personal bankruptcy filings (up 23 percent). Currently, 1.1 million personal bankruptcy cases are pending in the federal courts, it said.

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