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The Law and Federal, State, and Local Courts, Current Trends and Issues

Supreme Court case Griswold, unequal access, Federal district courts, new laws, judicial system

The judicial system is challenged by a tremendous volume of cases. The use of the system has escalated because the U.S. population has increased from 122 million in 1930 to 281 million in 2002. In addition, Americans have become more likely to settle any dispute, no matter how minor, in court.

The caseload has also increased because the courts have developed new categories of constitutional rights, mainly as a result of rulings in important, high-profile cases. Examples of this are the right to privacy established in the 1965 Supreme Court case Griswold v. Connecticut and the legal rights guaranteed defendants by Miranda v. Arizona in 1966. The court has expanded the legal rights of defendants in matters such as pretrial criminal procedures and protections to prisoners in the state and federal prison systems. Changes in technology, such as the development of the Internet, are also new areas that require judicial response. Inevitably such new developments lead to new laws, new kinds of disputes, and new judicial interpretations.

Federal district courts heard 87,000 cases in 1961; in 1996, 320,000 cases were commenced. Circuit court judges heard 51,500 cases in 1996. The Supreme Court, which decides the cases it hears, considered 7,602 in the same year, and of these only 140 were given full review. Still this is a burdensome amount. A challenge for the Supreme Court is to keep control over the number and type of cases it accepts so that it can reserve its decisions for those that help determine high-level policy.

There are many problems that state and local judiciaries face. Among these are long delays for defendants coming to trial, the slowness of the trials themselves, unequal access to justice between the rich and the poor, and difficulties in obtaining jury pools.

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