Federal Judgeships:

The General Accuracy of the Case-Related Workload Measures Used to Assess the Need for Additional District Court and Courts of Appeals Judgeships

GAO-03-788R: Published: May 30, 2003. Publicly Released: May 30, 2003.

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Biennially, the Judicial Conference, the federal judiciary's principal policymaking body, assesses the judiciary's needs for additional judgeships. If the Conference determines that additional judgeships are needed, it transmits a request to Congress identifying the number, type (courts of appeals, district, or bankruptcy), and location of the judgeships it is requesting. In 2003, the Judicial Conference sent to Congress requests for 93 new judgeships--11 for the courts of appeals, 46 for the district courts, and 36 for the bankruptcy courts. In assessing the need for additional judgeships, the Judicial Conference considers a variety of information, including responses to its biennial survey of individual courts, temporary increases or decreases in case filings, and other factors specific to an individual court. However, the Judicial Conference's analysis begins with the courts of appeals--weighted case filings and adjusted case filings, respectively. These two measures recognize, to different degrees, that the time demands on judges are largely a function of both the number and complexity of the cases on their dockets. Some types of cases may demand relatively little time and others may require many hours of work. Generally, each case filed in a district court is assigned a weight representing the average amount of judge time the case is expected to require. Using these measures, individual courts whose past case-related workload meets the threshold established by the Judicial Conference may be considered for additional judgeships. Authorized judgeships are the total number of judgeships authorized by statute for each district court and court of appeals. The Judicial Conference relies on these quantitative workload measures to be reasonably accurate rests in turn on the soundness of the methodology used to develop them. Whether those measures are reasonably accurate rests in turn on the soundness of the methodology used to develop them. Our objectives were to (1) determine whether the methods the Judicial Conference uses to quantitatively measure the case-related workload of district court and court of appeals judges results in a reasonably accurate measure of judges' case-related workload, (2) asses the reasonableness of any proposed methodologies to update the workload measures, and (3) obtain information from the Administrative Office of the U.S. Courts on the steps the Judiciary takes to ensure that the case filing data required for these workload measures are accurate.

The district court weighted case filings, as approved in 1993, appear to be reasonably accurate and are based on a reasonable methodology. However, they are about 10 years old, and we have concerns about the research design approved to update them. Overall, the weighted case filings, as approved in 1993, appear to be a reasonably accurate measure of the average time demands that 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 filing 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 assess the accuracy of the final case weights. However, the case weights are about 10 years old, and the data on which the weights were based are as much as 15 years old. Changes since 1993, such as the characteristics of cases filed in federal district courts and changes in case management practices, may have affected whether the 1993 weights continue to be a reasonably accurate measure of the average time burden on district court judges resulting from a specific volume and mix of cases. Some of these changes may have increased time demands, others may have reduced time demands. To the extent that the current case weights understate or overstate the total case related time demands on district judges, the weights could potentially result in the Judicial Conference understating or overstating the need for new district court judgeships. The Judicial Conference's Subcommittee on Judicial Statistics has approved a research design for updating the current case weights, and we have some concerns about that design. The design would include limited data on the time judges actually spend on specific types of cases. Much of the time data used would be based on consensus estimates from groups of experienced judges. Such data cannot be used to develop an objective, statistical measure of the accuracy of the final case weights. Without such a measure, it is not possible to determine whether the case weights are in fact a reasonably accurate measure of case-related judge workload. In assessing the need for judgeships in specific courts, the Judicial Conference relies on the case weights to be a reasonably accurate measure of judges' case-related workload. Unlike the district court case weights, the adjusted filings workload measure for appellate judges is not based on any empirical data regarding the time that different types of cases required of courts of appeals judges. The adjusted filings workload measure basically assumes that all cases have an equal effect on judges' workload with the exception of pro se cases--those in which one or both parties are not represented by a lawyer--which are weighted at 0.33, or on-third as much as all other cases. In the documentation we reviewed, we found no empirical data to support that assumption. The current court of appeals case-related workload measure, adopted in 1996, reflects an effort to improve the previous measure, which may have tended to overstate judgeship needs. At the time the current measure was developed and approved, using the new benchmark at 500 adjusted case filings resulted in judgeship numbers that closely approximated the judgeship needs of the majority of the courts of appeals, as the judges of each court of appeals perceived them. However, on the basis of the documentation we reviewed, there is no empirical basis on which to assess the accuracy of adjusted filings as a measure of case-related workload for courts of appeals judges.

Status Legend:

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  • Review Pending-GAO has not yet assessed implementation status.
  • Open-Actions to satisfy the intent of the recommendation have not been taken or are being planned, or actions that partially satisfy the intent of the recommendation have been taken.
  • Closed-implemented-Actions that satisfy the intent of the recommendation have been taken.
  • Closed-not implemented-While the intent of the recommendation has not been satisfied, time or circumstances have rendered the recommendation invalid.
    • Review Pending
    • Open
    • Closed - implemented
    • Closed - not implemented

    Recommendations for Executive Action

    Recommendation: The Judicial Conference of the United states should update the district court case weights using a methodology that supports an objective, statistically reliable means of calculating the accuracy of the resulting weights.

    Agency Affected: Judicial Conference of the United States

    Status: Closed - Not Implemented

    Comments: The Judicial Conference's Committee on Judicial Resources recognizes that the methodology to be used to update the district court case weights will not result in the development of objective, statistical measures of the accuracy of the resulting case weights. However, the Committee has concluded that the planned methodology will be sufficiently accurate for use in assessing future judgeship needs.

    Recommendation: The Judicial Conference of the United states should develop a methodology for measuring the case-related workload of courts of appeals judges that supports an objective, statistically reliable means of calculating the accuracy of the resulting workload measures and that addresses the special case characteristics of the Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit.

    Agency Affected: Judicial Conference of the United States

    Status: Closed - Not Implemented

    Comments: The Judicial Conference's Committee on Judicial Resources continues to believe that the Courts of Appeals are each unique, and their individual characteristics preclude developing a methodology that could be used to create more objective workload measures that could be applied to all courts.

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