WASHINGTON, D.C.—Each year, the chief justice of the United States files an annual report on the federal court system. While most years recite statistics on federal caseloads and announce minor adjustments to the rules that govern legal proceedings, this year, Chief Justice John Roberts announced major reforms to federal lawsuits.
Most court cases are civil, not criminal, and at the trial level are subject to the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure. This year’s report showcased the results of a five-year project to overhaul federal litigation, announcing major changes to federal court rules to “address the most serious impediments to just, speedy, and efficient resolution of civil disputes.”
Chief Justice Roberts made official what every practicing lawyer already knows—and what the American public generally senses—that the legal community has reached a consensus that “in many cases civil litigation has become too expensive, time-consuming, and contentious, inhibiting effective access to the courts.”
“I cannot believe that many members of the bar went to law school because of a burning desire to spend their professional life wearing down opponents with creatively burdensome discovery requests or evading legitimate requests through dilatory tactics,” he explained in his report.
Accordingly, the federal rules now explicitly require judges and lawyers to construe all procedural rules in a manner that will lead to a prompt resolution of the controversy, avoiding unnecessary costs and delays. Perhaps the most significant specific change is that now all requests for discovery—the legal term for gathering evidence through documents, depositions, and written questions to which the law requires a response—must be tailored by the court to deny or restrict requests where the value of the evidence would be outweighed by the cost or burden of producing it.
While all this sounds boring and tedious, the reality is that curbing these legal abuses would solve much of what makes typical citizens cynical of the legal process, and tremendously reduce the time, cost, and hassle of litigation.
With his customary penchant for lightening the mood of reports and speeches, Roberts began his report by discussing an 1838 guide to pistol dueling, written by Gov. John Lyde Wilson of South Carolina. Roberts noted that Wilson’s guide specified such minutiae as “time limits, the form and methods of written communications, the obligation to attempt reconciliation without bloodshed,” and the procedures for issuing challenges.
Wilson’s 1838 guide reasoned that dueling is inevitable “where there is no tribunal to do justice to an oppressed and deeply wronged individual.” Some Americans may feel they have reached that level of frustration in federal litigation. It remains to be seen whether the judiciary’s new rules will change that sentiment.
Ken Klukowski is legal editor for Breitbart News. Follow him on Twitter @kenklukowski.