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Caseloads: History of Federal Caseload Reporting

See also: Federal Judicial Caseloads, 1789-2016 (graphs)

Prior to the establishment of the Department of Justice in 1870, the federal government did not regularly collect data on caseloads in the federal courts. During the first 80 years of the federal government, the Congress or the executive branch only occasionally initiated surveys of the business of the federal courts throughout the nation. In December 1801, at the request of President Thomas Jefferson, Secretary of State James Madison sent to Congress the first report of nationwide federal caseloads. A revised version of this report was submitted to Congress in February 1802, and members of Congress made frequent reference to the report during debates on the repeal of the Judiciary Act of 1801. Over the next 70 years, usually in response to resolutions of the Senate or the House of Representatives, the secretary of state or the secretary of the interior prepared reports on the business of the federal courts. Some of these reports surveyed the caseloads of all district and circuit courts, while others focused on particular jurisdictional subjects, such as an 1829 report on criminal prosecutions or reports on cases brought under the bankruptcy act of 1841. A report of 1839 described the business of the U.S. circuit courts and the miles traveled by Supreme Court justices attending the circuit courts. In 1859, the Department of the Interior, which then provided administrative support for the federal courts, on its own initiative distributed interrogatories to court officials to determine caseloads and other court business conducted in 1857 and 1858. While congressional resolutions did not usually state the reasons for requests of caseload reports, the reports were cited in debates on legislation concerning the judiciary and, less frequently, in presidential messages.

In the years before the establishment of the Department of Justice, and with little administrative support from government officials in Washington, the courts found it difficult to report complete and uniform data. Surveys of caseloads depended on the participation of clerks of court, marshals, and district attorneys, who often lacked complete records for an accurate reporting of court business. Almost all of the reports from before the 1870s were missing data from some courts or included incomplete data from reporting courts. The irregularity and inconsistency of these caseload reports make it difficult to draw comparisons between reports or to document broad trends in court business. The extant reports serve rather as valuable views of the work of some courts at various times.

Available on the History of the Federal Judiciary website are detailed descriptions of the information contained in nine of the pre-1870 reports on nationwide caseloads in the federal courts. Full citations for each source are included with the descriptions. The sources discussed do not represent all existing pre-1870 caseload reports, but only those that were intended to be national in scope; additional sources, narrower in focus, can be located in the U.S. Congressional Serial Set .

Those who wish to conduct further research on the caseloads of a particular federal court may consult the original records of the court. Record Group 21 at the National Archives contains minute books, order books, dockets, and other records from the district and circuit courts. The locations of the records for each court are described on the respective court's web page

The Department of Justice's responsibility for coordinating the legal business of the federal government led to the first regular and sustained effort to document the workload of the courts. The 1870 act that established the Department of Justice required the attorney general to submit annually to Congress a report on the "business" of the Department and "any other matters appertaining thereto that he may deem proper." The first three reports included information on the civil and criminal cases involving the United States as a party. In 1873, Congress further instructed the attorney general to report "a statement of the number of causes, civil and criminal, pending during the preceding year in each of the several courts of the United States." Thereafter, the attorney general's annual report also included statistics on private litigation in the courts.

The attorney general's office compiled the reports of civil and criminal caseloads from statistics submitted annually by U.S. attorneys. Each year, the attorney general issued a circular requiring the district attorneys to prepare a report on the cases in each judicial district involving the United States as a party and to obtain information on private litigation from the clerks of the courts. These annual reports from the district attorneys, which were in addition to any other docket reports required by the Department of Justice throughout the year, did not distinguish between cases in the district and circuit courts. The clerks of court were tasked with reporting to the Department of Justice caseload information for cases arising under the Bankruptcy Act of 1898, and in 1919 they assumed responsibility for annual reporting of private civil cases.

The attorney general's circular to the district attorneys designated the subcategories of civil and criminal cases that would be presented in the tables in the annual report. For example, civil cases involving the United States as a party were reported using the following case categories: customs, internal revenue, post-office, and miscellaneous. The criminal cases were similarly broken down into categories: prosecutions involving customs, internal revenue, the Reconstruction enforcement acts, naturalization, embezzlement, and miscellaneous crimes. Beginning in 1873, the attorney general's annual report expanded to include a count of private civil cases, classified as "admiralty" and "other," that were filed, terminated, and pending in each district. The attorney general's office, often with input from the district attorneys, modified from time to time the subcategories of cases to be identified by attorneys and clerks. In the early twentieth century, the Department of Justice tracked and reported U.S. criminal and civil cases arising under such laws as interstate commerce acts, land laws, the Sherman Anti-Trust Act, banking acts, pure food and drug act, pension laws, the white slave traffic act, and the meat inspection act. Beginning in 1922, the attorney general's report presented tables that grouped civil and criminal cases involving the United States as a party into broader categories, including regulation of commerce, public health and safety, banking and finance, and foreign relations; the reports presented separate tables for each of these categories with a more detailed breakdown of cases arising under specific statutes. The data on private civil litigation continued to be divided simply into admiralty and other until 1935.

From 1871 to 1934, the staff at the attorney general's office gathered, collated, and reported the statistics submitted by district attorneys and court clerks at the end of each year. The statistics published in the attorney general's annual report often suffered from incomplete or missing information from the districts, however, since the attorney general had little authority to enforce uniform reporting of data. For example, in 1906, Attorney General W.H. Moody issued a circular acknowledging that it was unclear whether district attorneys were including information for both the district and circuit courts. In the 1910s, the Department of Justice produced new forms, along with detailed instructions, for information on pending cases to be updated regularly by district attorneys in order to improve the annual tabulation of caseload statistics.

Beginning in 1922, the attorney general presented the statistics compiled by the Department of Justice's Division of Accounts to the Conference of Senior Circuit Judges. District judges, relying on information from U.S. attorneys and court clerks, also provided statistical information to the senior circuit judges, who used them in their own reports on the state of dockets in their respective circuits. The conference relied on caseload statistics to identify which districts needed assistance from reassigned judges, and to recommend to Congress the creation of new judgeships. Judges complained, however, that the broad totals of cases filed, terminated, and pending did not give a sufficiently detailed picture of the productivity of individual district courts.

As Prohibition produced an increase in criminal and civil caseloads and placed new strains on judicial administration, government officials and legal scholars called for more detailed and reliable criminal and judicial statistics. The Department of Justice responded with an overhaul of its methods for collecting and reporting this data.

In 1929, President Hoover appointed a National Commission on Law Observance and Enforcement to study the rise in crime and to recommend administrative innovations to prevent and reduce it. As part of its work, the commission planned a study of the operations of the federal courts, which was continued by the American Law Institute upon the expiration of the commission in 1931. The commission recommended a new system of gathering judicial statistics, which it had used in compiling the data for its final report in 1934. In 1935, after years of study and consultation, the Department of Justice established a Bureau of Statistics and adopted the new system of statistical reporting.

The new reporting system was based on individual data cards prepared for each case commenced and terminated. Each court submitted the cards to the Bureau of Statistics on a monthly basis. Each data card included detailed information about the nature of the case, with termination reports relaying how the case was disposed, dates of important procedural steps, and other facts related to its path through the court. U.S. attorneys submitted data cards for criminal trials, and court clerks submitted cards for civil trials. Clerks at the Bureau of Statistics coded the data, punched the individual cards, and tabulated the data by machines. The mechanization allowed for faster processing of information and distribution of it in quarterly reports to senior circuit judges and circuit judicial councils. The Bureau produced detailed instruction manuals so that attorneys and clerks would follow uniform standards in filling out the new information required by the data cards.

The Department of Justice used its new reporting system to expand the detail of its statistical tables, especially those for criminal prosecutions and private civil litigation. Criminal cases were presented in tables with detailed breakdown of the types of offenses prosecuted. The tables for civil litigation involving the United States were divided into cases in which the government was plaintiff and defendant, and then further categorized into actions in law, equity, and admiralty. Private litigation was categorized as law, equity, admiralty, or special proceedings, with each area further divided by the type of proceedings, such as contract, tort, and habeas corpus petitions.

In 1940, the newly established Administrative Office of the U.S. Courts took over the task of gathering and analyzing caseload statistics. In April 1940, the Administrative Office placed responsibility for caseload information in the Division of Procedural Studies and Statistics. In 1941, the Administrative Office shifted reporting responsibilities for criminal cases from U.S. attorneys to district court clerks and began using the data card report to collect case information from the clerks of the circuit courts of appeals. In 1943, the Judicial Conference established the Committee on Judicial Statistics (replaced in 1968 by the Committee on Court Administration subcommittee on statistics) to consult with the director of the Administrative Office on improving the collection and reporting of caseload statistics. The Administrative Office continued to operate on the data card system established by the Department of Justice, with a few modifications. For criminal cases, a card report was submitted for each case filed, which listed all defendants involved, and another card report was submitted when each defendant was disposed of. Criminal cases were deemed pending until all defendants listed on the original card report had been disposed of. Bankruptcy termination reports were prepared by the referee's office and forwarded to the Administrative Office by the district court clerk. The Administrative Office also adopted a new format for the director's annual report; for example, the report included greater detail on the types of civil litigation in the courts but ceased to include a total for suits in equity.

In the 1970s, the Administrative Office and the Statistical Subcommittee of the Judicial Conference on Court Administration sought ways to more accurately represent pending cases. The Administrative Office concluded that many civil cases pending longer than three years were technically open, but no activity had taken place in some time, the issues presented had been resolved, and all contemplated judicial action had been taken, although the cases could not be dismissed. The Conference on Court Administration recommended that court clerks be permitted to classify such cases as terminated for statistical purposes, with the ability to reopen the case file if some action took place in the future. In 1978, the statistical closing of a case was limited to those cases that were older than three years, in which all proceedings had been completed, and in which no action had been taken in twelve months. On the criminal side, the Conference on Court Administration recommended separating out cases that were in so-called fugitive status, in which a criminal case was opened but a defendant was not in custody. The Annual Report would show cases available for trial and fugitive cases not assigned to any judge. The recommendations on fugitive cases were adopted by the Conference in 1974, but those changes were rescinded in 1975 in compliance with the Speedy Trial Act of the previous year. In 1990, the Conference on Court Administration approved closing fugitive cases where a defendant had been a pretrial fugitive for more than a year and where there appeared to be no likelihood the defendant would be apprehended.

Since the 1970s, the Administrative Office, in conjunction with the Federal Judicial Center, has gradually transformed the system of data gathering from the paper-based card system to an integrated system of electronic docketing and statistical reporting. In the mid-1970s, the Federal Judicial Center developed the COURTRAN system, an automated system for gathering case information (first criminal, then civil) from the courts and depositing it in mainframe computers based in Washington, D.C. The system was transferred to the control of the Administrative Office in the early 1980s and was gradually implemented in select districts. In 1983, the Judicial Conference released the Long Range Plan for Automation, which set out plans to replace the COURTRAN system and manual data entry on paper dockets, where it still existed; the system was envisioned as a decentralized one and devolved many responsibilities for data management to the courts. In 1985, the Judicial Conference Committee on Court Administration approved a Five Year Plan for Automation in the United States Courts . In 1987, the Administrative Office introduced AIMS, an electronic docketing system for the appellate courts, which had been developed by the Federal Judicial Center. The Administrative Office released electronic docketing systems for district (CIVIL and CRIMINAL) and bankruptcy courts (BANCAP) the following year. In 1989, Congress established the Judiciary Automation Fund, which the courts used to execute the Long Range Plan for Automation in the U.S. Courts. The automation program was directed primarily at increasing efficiency of case management in the courts, but it also was important for reporting caseload statistics to the Administrative Office. Beginning in the late 1990s, the Administrative Office began gradually converting the federal courts to a new Case Management/Electronic Case Filing system. The new automated systems are still based on reporting made by court clerks when cases are filed and terminated, although clerks can enter all information about a case into the docketing system and then electronically submit various statistical reports to the Statistics Division of the Administrative Office on a monthly basis.

Since 1940, the Administrative Office, in conjunction with the Judicial Conference, has developed increasingly sophisticated analyses of caseloads in the federal courts, with detailed tables that break down caseloads district by district, by nature of suits, manner of disposition, and length of time from filing to disposition. The Administrative Office also gathered statistics on the operations of trials, probationers, the selection and use of jurors, the duties of magistrate judges, the use of pretrial proceedings, and the time it took to dispose of specific types of cases. The Administrative Office, based on studies conducted by the Federal Judicial Center, began in 1971 to present weighted case filings, which measured the amount of time and resources required to dispose of different kinds of cases. These statistics support decisions on a host of administrative tasks in the courts, including budget allocation for court staff and resources, equipment, and information technology; determining the location of divisional offices; determining the need for new judgeships and new courthouses and courtrooms; and developing long-range planning for the federal judiciary.

More detailed information on federal court caseloads is available in the Annual Report of the Director of the Administrative Office of the U.S. Courts and the Judicial Business of the United States . The Judicial Business since 1997 is available online at .