Bureaucratization of the judiciary


Description: Development of an administrative body within the federal judiciary.

Significance: The bureaucratization of the federal judiciary and Supreme Court allowed the courts to distance themselves from the administrative power of the executive branch, giving them greater control over their own budgets and dockets.

Administrative capabilities developed more slowly in the courts than in either the legislative or executive branches. One of the first laws passed by Congress was the 1789 Judiciary Act. The act established lower federal district courts and the structure of the federal legal system for the next century. Throughout most of the nineteenth century, limited federal jurisdiction meant that the lower district courts were frequently underworked, while the Supreme Court was able to maintain its caseload without difficulty. The bureaucracy that existed in the federal court system was confined to patronage positions controlled by each federal judge. There was no centralized authority over these judges, and the Supreme Court had limited oversight power. The budgets for the courts were drawn up by the Justice Department with little input from the judges. This decentralized system of justice functioned effectively until Congress created regulatory agencies whose decisions could be reviewed by federal courts. Suddenly district courts were overwhelmed with cases involving challenges to regulatory schemes. The backlog of cases prompted Congress to pass the 1891 Judiciary Act and add a layer of courts to the federal system. The circuit courts of appeals, which oversaw the work of district judges, reduced the Supreme Court's appellate caseload. The 1925 Judiciary Act took an additional step in limiting the Supreme Court's workload by giving the justices control over their docket. After 1925 the justices could decide which cases they would hear. However, even after gaining control over the docket, the judiciary had little control over the administration of the court system. The Justice Department continued to act as the administrator of the courts. The U.S. attorney general was responsible for determining salaries of clerks and other support staff, hiring marshals, and auditing the use of federal money by district judges. The Justice Department also investigated judicial misconduct. In an effort to clear clogged dockets, the department also assigned judges to different circuits or districts. Disagreements with the Justice Department prompted judges to try to remove administrative power from the department. With the appointment of William H. Taft to chief justice, control over administration became a major issue.

Three Administrative Institutions

One of Taft's first steps was the formation of the Judicial Conference of the United States in 1922. The conference, which consists of the chief justice, federal appeals court judges, and district court judges, meets twice a year to discuss issues and problems within the federal judiciary. The conference's main role is to propose changes in the dispensation of justice, suggest legislation, and prepare a budget for the entire judiciary. The conference uses committees to study some specific problems. For example, Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist formed a committee to explore reform of the habeas corpus process. Chaired by former Justice Lewis F. Powell, Jr., the committee proposed limiting habeas appeals to federal courts, a suggestion made into law in 1995. Also, the conference's budget committee proposes to Congress the appropriations for the courts for each fiscal year. With the conference in place, the judiciary moved to assert more administrative control over its budget and working conditions. A 1939 law formed the Administrative Office of the U.S. Courts. The legislation asserted judicial control over the courts’ own budgets and appropriations. The office also audited expenditures, distributed resources, planned the construction or purchase of court buildings, and kept records of the decisions and issues before the courts. The office also provided information that the conference could use in making legislative suggestions to Congress. The 1939 legislation eliminated direct Justice Department control over the judiciary and placed it within the powers of an appointed official who worked for the courts. A third institution created to aid federal courts in administration was the Federal Judicial Center. Formed in 1967, the center studied legal issues and methods of adjudication. The center conducts studies of management techniques used in federal courts and oversees whether judges are implementing the policies handed down by the Judicial Conference. The center also conducts training sessions for new judges, providing them information on how to efficiently dispense their caseloads. Each of these institutions placed more administrative control in the hands of judges and made the judiciary more independent of executive or legislative control. It also made the courts more efficient and able to hear more cases each year.

Internal Changes

As the federal courts became more efficient, it placed greater pressure on the Supreme Court, which was eventually forced to bureaucratize its own work. Chief Justice Warren E. Burger initiated reforms of the Court to handle the increased workload. In 1972 the Court began pooling the writs of certiorari to help process the thousands of certiorari petitions received by the justices each year. The petitions in the cert pool are divided equally among the clerks of the participating justices. The clerks prepare summaries of the petitions and distribute them among the other chambers. By dividing the tasks among the different chambers, the Court reduced the workload for each chamber and streamlined the process for determining whether certiorari should be granted in a case. The Burger Court also experienced an increase in the clerical support for each justice. The number of law clerks increased to three per justice, and each chamber was provided the resources to hire an administrative staff. As a miniature bureaucracy formed within each chamber, the Court began to operate on the lines of nine individual law firms. As the demands on the federal judiciary became greater, the judges created a bureaucracy that allowed for more efficient administration of justice.

Further Reading

  • Carp, Robert, and Ronald Stidham. The Federal Courts. Washington, D.C.: Congressional Quarterly, 1985.
  • Fish, Peter. The Politics of Federal Judicial Administration. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1973.
  • Surrency, Erwin. History of the Federal Courts. New York: Oceana, 1987.