Federal Judgeships:

The General Accuracy of District and Appellate Judgeship Case-Related Workload Measures

GAO-13-862T: Published: Sep 10, 2013. Publicly Released: Sep 10, 2013.

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What GAO Found

Based on GAO's 2003 report, it was found that the district court case weights approved in 1993 to be a reasonably accurate measure of the average time demands a specific number and mix of cases filed in a district court could be expected to place on the district judges in that court. The methodology used to develop the weights used a valid sampling procedure, developed weights based on actual case-related time recorded by judges from case filings to disposition, and included a measure (standard errors) of the statistical confidence in the final weight for each weighted case type. Without such a measure, it is not possible to objectively assess the accuracy of the final case weights.

At the time of GAO's 2003 report, the Subcommittee on Judicial Statistics of the Judicial Conference's Judicial Resources Committee had approved the research design for revising the 1993 case weights, with a goal of having new weights submitted to the Judicial Resources Committee for review in the summer of 2004. The design for the new case weights relied on three sources of data for specific types of cases: (1) data from automated databases identifying the docketed events associated with the cases; (2) data from automated sources on the time associated with courtroom events for cases, such as trials or hearings; and (3) consensus of estimated time data from structured, guided discussion among experienced judges on the time associated with noncourtroom events for cases, such as reading briefs or writing opinions.

In addition, GAO found that the principal quantitative measure the Judicial Conference used to assess the need for additional courts of appeals judgeships was adjusted case filings. The measure is based on data available from standard statistical reports for the courts of appeals. The adjusted filings workload measure is not based on any empirical data regarding the time that different types of cases required of appellate judges.

The Judicial Conference's policy is that courts of appeals with adjusted case filings of 500 or more per 3-judge panel may be considered for 1 or more additional judgeships. Courts of appeals generally decide cases using constantly rotating 3-judge panels. Thus, if a court had 12 authorized judgeships, those judges could be assigned to four panels of 3 judges each. In assessing judgeship needs for the courts of appeals, the conference may also consider factors other than adjusted filings, such as the geography of the circuit or the median time from case filings to disposition.

Why GAO Did This Study

The demands on judges' time are largely a function of both the number and complexity of the cases on their dockets. To measure the case-related workload of district court judges, the Judicial Conference has adopted weighted case filings. The purpose of the district court case weights was to create a measure of the average judge time that a specific number and mix of cases filed in a district court would require. Importantly, the weights were designed to be descriptive, not prescriptive--that is, the weights were designed to develop a measure of the national average amount of time that judges actually spent on specific cases, not to develop a measure of how much time judges should spend on various types of cases. Moreover, the weights were designed to measure only case-related workload. Judges have noncase-related duties and responsibilities, such as administrative tasks, that are not reflected in the case weights.

With few exceptions, such as cases that are remanded to a district court from the court of appeals, each civil or criminal case filed in a district court is assigned a case weight. For example, in the 2004 case weights--which are still in use--drug possession cases are weighted at 0.86, while civil copyright and trademark cases are weighted at 2.12. The total annual weighted filings for a district are determined by summing the case weight associated with all the cases filed in the district during the year. A weighted case filing per authorized judgeship is the total annual weighted filings divided by the total number of authorized judgeships. The Judicial Conference uses weighted filings of 430 or more per authorized judgeship as an indication that a district may need additional judgeships. Thus, for example, a district with 460 weighted filings per authorized judgeship, including newly requested judgeships, could be considered for an additional judgeship. However, the Judicial Conference does not consider a district for additional judgeships, regardless of its weighted case filings, if the district does not request any additional judgeships.

For more information, contact David C. Maurer, (202) 512-9627, maurerd@gao.gov.

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