The Power to Govern: Assessing Reform in the United States

By Richard M. Pious | Go to book overview

The Changing Federal Courts

JEFFREY BRANDON MORRIS

The federal court system was not working well a century ago. The Supreme Court, flooded with trivial appeals, kept litigants waiting from two to three years for a decision. The circuit courts were not functioning as had been intended. The justices almost never rode circuit anymore. The nine circuit judges were unable to attend court in all sixty-five districts. Thus, in many instances, circuit court was held by a sole district judge, often sitting in judgment on appeals from his own conduct as a trial judge. The dockets of both district and circuit courts were swollen. Each district court constituted an independent and autonomous administrative unit. While there were no law clerks, district judges hired their clerks of court, United States commissioners (who set bail and took affidavits), bankruptcy receivers, court criers, and messengers. As Peter Fish wrote of these district judges, "they became lions on their relatively remote thrones." 1

Today the federal courts are among the most powerful institutions of American government. The Supreme Court continues to make epochal rulings in major areas of public policy during each decade. The lower federal courts have come to supervise school integration, the staffing of mental hospitals, the reapportionment of legislatures, and the treatment of prisoners.

Over the past century the federal court system has had to adjust to a steady increase in the volume and complexity of judicial business. Judgeships increased from 101 district judges and 28 judges of the courts of appeals in 1900 to 513 district judgeships and 132 courts of appeals judgeships (not counting retired judges still serving on senior status) in 1978. Federal courts have made four major types of adjustments—structural changes, increased management, creation of simplified rules of practice and procedure, and increased staff support.

The appellate capacity has been increased by such structural changes as the creation in 1891 of a solely appellate tier of courts, the courts of appeals. In 1925 the Supreme Court was given a large measure of control over the cases it would

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1
Peter Graham Fish, The Politics of Federal Judicial Administration (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1973), p. 13.

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The Power to Govern: Assessing Reform in the United States
Table of contents

Table of contents

  • The Power to Govern: Assessing Reform in the United States *
  • Contents *
  • Preface *
  • Contributors *
  • Prospects for Reform *
  • The Evolving Federal System *
  • The Intergovernmental System *
  • Reassessing the "Imperial Presidency" *
  • Congressional Power *
  • Developing Fiscal Responsibility *
  • Legislative Delegation to Regulatory Agencies *
  • The Changing Federal Courts *
  • Women in Politics *
  • Direct Participation in Politics *
  • The Presidency in the Age of Television *
  • The Impact of Government Employee Unions *
  • New Elites and Pluralism *
  • Formulating Foreign Policy *
  • The Revolution in Communications and Diplomacy *
  • Defining the National Interest *
  • The Impact of Population Shifts *
  • Cities of the Future *
  • The Politics of Scarcity *
  • The Power to Govern *
  • Index *
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