The U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals, once widely criticized as too large to function effectively, has been praised in a new federal study for overcoming many of its problems and showing "dramatic results" in reducing court congestion and delay.
The staff report prepared for the Federal Judicial Center in Washington, the research arm of the federal judiciary, concludes that, in some respects, the 9th Circuit is now a model for the nation's other large appellate courts.
Some critics of the 9th Circuit, the largest and busiest of the nation's 12 intermediate federal appeals courts, have contended for years that the court would be more efficient if it were divided into smaller units.
But Chief Judge James R. Browning of San Francisco said the new report on the 9th Circuit's progress in dealing with its problems is "gratifying confirmation" that the court can operate effectively without such a division.
Browning and the other judges of the 9th Circuit, which covers a nine-state Western region including California, had requested the study to obtain an "objective view" of the steps taken by the court in recent years to reduce delay in the appeals process.
The report noted that as a result of a number of "innovative" measures taken to increase efficiency in recent years, the median time from the filing of an appeal to disposition of a case in the 9th Circuit has been cut from a high of 17.4 months in 1980 to 9.5 months in 1984.
A previous backlog of about 1,000 cases a year has also been eliminated, the report continued.
A. Leo Levin, director of the Federal Judicial Center, qualified his praise of the 9th Circuit's efforts to resolve its problems by pointing out that the court remains behind the nation's other appellate courts in many measures of efficiency, including the time from filing to disposition of an appeal.
But Levin, once among those calling for a split of the court, said the "dramatic results" of the 9th Circuit's efforts at increasing productivity merit the attention of the nation's other appellate courts as an example of how a large court can take "innovative" measures to resolve its internal problems.
"The publication of this report is in itself a tribute to the initiative and dedication of Chief Judge Browning and his colleagues," Levin wrote. "Faced with what appeared to be intractable problems of court congestion and delay, the judges resolved to review the court's processes and procedures with the aim of increasing productivity without impairing the quality of justice."
"There is certainly progress," Levin added, observing that the 9th Circuit's experience will make it easier for other appellate courts to choose among "available innovations" and to fashion "new alternatives" as they cope with similar problems of size in future years.
The report, prepared by Joe. S. Cecil, a staff member of the Federal Judicial Center, noted that the 9th Circuit had reduced its pending caseload partly by a series of internal administrative changes designed to increase efficiency.
An emphasis on increasing the number of cases decided without oral arguments was among the measures cited as contributing to the court's improvement, but the report also noted that part of the improved record was simply the result of a commitment by the 9th Circuit's 24 active judges to increase their individual workload.
The judges have increased the average number of annual case participations from 229 to 291, an increase of 27%, the report said.
Despite his praise of the 9th Circuit's efforts at coping with its geographical problems and a rising caseload, Levin said it was impossible to reach conclusions about the future of the court, stressing that the report made no attempt to address the issue of whether the circuit might ultimately have to be divided.
"What is evident is that . . . the crisis of volume continues and promises to continue in the years ahead," he said. "Only a limited number of basic options are available. . . . Productivity cannot be increased indefinitely without loss in the quality of justice."
Congress has authorized four more active judges for the 9th Circuit, which is headquartered in San Francisco. Levin said one obvious alternative for the court in future years would be creation of even more judgeships to meet the expected continuing rise in appeals, but observed that there may be an eventual limit to the number of judges any appellate court can properly utilize.
Browning said he believes the court now has all the manpower it needs to function efficiently, but said additional judges might be needed in another two years.