The United States Congress recently authorized the appointment of a Commission on Structural Alternatives for the Federal Courts of Appeals. That entity has an historic opportunity to analyze carefully the federal appellate system and make valuable suggestions for improvement, thereby charting the destiny of the intermediate appeals courts for the twenty-first century. The creation of this new commission is important because now is a critical time for the appellate courts. All twelve regional circuits have experienced exponential docket growth but have possessed insufficient resources to treat the cases: this crisis of volume now seriously threatens the system.
This Article initially considers the developments that led Congress to approve the commission. The background is particularly significant because assessment of the mandate that Congress assigned the entity suggests that the charge is unclear, very general, and amenable to multiple plausible interpretations. The convoluted and complex-if not arcane-legislative process that yielded the authorizing statute additionally frustrates understanding. For example, a House-Senate Conference Committee adopted the study measure as a substitute for an appropriations rider that would have divided the United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit. The commission, therefore, was ultimately the product of congressional machinations which had quite different purposes and of lengthy, controversial negotiations among senators and representatives who held extraordinarily diverse views.
These propositions mean that Congress effectively left significant features of the entity's evaluation and its recommendations to the discretion of commission members and their staff. For instance, the authorizing legislation requires that the entity focus on the Ninth Circuit, but it is unclear how much emphasis this court should receive. Moreover, the commission and the staff must expeditiously resolve these issues, so that the entity can discharge its daunting assignment in the exceedingly short compass afforded. The Article accordingly probes the events that preceded adoption of the study commission statute to ascertain precisely what Congress intended. This inquiry proves somewhat inconclusive, although it is possible to extract certain ideas from the relevant legislative history.
The Article concludes with recommendations for conducting the study. Because all of the appeals courts have experienced burgeoning dockets over the last quarter-century and have developed a broad spectrum of measures for treating them, the entire system warrants comprehensive analysis. The finest solutions for the problems that every appellate court confronts can only be crafted after the commission systemically collects, assesses and synthesizes the maximum relevant empirical data on increasing appeals and mechanisms for addressing caseload growth. Once the entity has compiled and consulted the largest quantity of accurate information, it should be possible to identify the best remedies for the difficulties that the regional circuits will face in the twenty-first century.
Carl Tobias, Suggestions for Studying the Federal Appellate System, 49 Fla. L. Rev. 189 (1997)