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Tribunal to Aid Supreme Court Opposed : Study Says Justices Accept Many Cases That Don't Merit Review

March 07, 1985|PHILIP HAGER | Times Staff Writer

WASHINGTON — A detailed study of the way the Supreme Court selects cases strongly opposed creation of a new national appeals court to ease the justices' workload, contending that up to one-fourth of the cases they decide to hear are not worth the time and effort.

The study said that a new court, as proposed by Chief Justice Warren E. Burger, would only cause more work and further delay. By reforming their case-selection process, the justices could increase their capacity to hear and decide cases, removing any need for a new court, it said.

The 1,200-word analysis, to be published in the New York University Law Review, urged the justices to allow some legal issues to "percolate" longer in the lower courts and to focus their efforts on cases that need immediate resolution. The court, it concluded, no longer can try to assure justice in each individual case, but, instead, should become an "overall manager" of a legal system whose end product is justice.

Most Complete Study Yet

The study represents the most complete examination yet of the justices' case-selection process, a matter of increasing concern as more and more appeals are brought to the court. The analysis was produced by NYU Law School professors John Sexton and Samuel Estreicher--both former Supreme Court clerks--with the help of four research assistants and about 70 law students.

Proposals for a new national appeals court to lighten the justices' load have been debated for more than a dozen years, and legislation providing for such a court has been proposed but never approved by Congress.

In February, Burger sought to revive the idea, devoting his entire speech before the American Bar Assn. mid-year meeting in Detroit to the need for a new tribunal, which he said could hear up to one-third of the cases now being decided by the court. He noted that the court's overall caseload has tripled in the last three decades.

Specific Criteria Needed

The study said the justices should develop more specific criteria for the kinds of cases they will review. Current court rules list only vague categories for such cases, such as those involving "an important federal question" that should be decided.

"Clarifying the criteria would give lawyers a better idea of where they stand before they decide to appeal," Sexton said in an interview. "Now, the indefinite criteria encourage lawyers to take cases to the court on the long-shot hope they'll get review."

Without clear case-selection guidelines, the justices' individual "doctrinal or political agendas" open the way for review of cases that might be better left to another day, the study said.

1982-83 Term Examined

The NYU researchers examined more than 2,000 cases that came before the court in its 1982-83 term. Of the 165 cases granted review, 39 did not warrant review, and an additional 47 merited review only if the justices had "excess time," the researchers said. The remaining 79 cases--about half of the total--were legitimately granted review because they raised important issues, such as the constitutionality of a federal or state statute or a ruling that apparently conflicted with Supreme Court precedents, they said.

Ironically, some of the 39 cases that the study found unworthy of review made headlines across the nation when they were decided. In one California case, the court held that states were not required to review a death sentence to make sure it was "proportionate" to punishment issued in other cases involving similar crimes. That issue deserved further consideration in lower courts before it was finally decided by the justices, the study said.

The authors of the study offered numerous reform proposals but indicated that creation of a new national appeals court is, at best, a last resort. "It is our view that not only would a new court fail to reduce the court's workload but also that it would aggravate existing problems and create new ones," the authors said.

The justices would require additional time to decide what cases they would refer to the new court, the study noted. Such cases, after being decided by the new court, could well come back for further review by the justices. Meanwhile, the study said, final resolution of legal issues would be delayed.

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