Ask any judge or court clerk, and they’ll tell you they’re busy. But what does that mean? Do they write a lot of opinions… hear a truckload of cases… or plow through thousands of cases filed in their jurisdictions.
To find out what “busy” means, here are some interesting details and statistics about courts and their filing practices from around the United States—both state and federal.
How much do attorneys like to file lawsuits?
Quite a bit, if you examine the numbers.
It’s estimated that there are more than 40 million lawsuits filed every year in the United States, and the total number of registered lawyers exceed one million. The statistic shows the number of lawyers in the United States from 2007 to 2018 was approximately 1.34 million.
2018 data from the American Bar Association on the nationwide population of lawyers indicates a total of 1,338,678 licensed, active attorneys in the United States. The total represents a 0.2% increase since last year and a 15.2% rise over the past decade in number of U.S. lawyers.
The top five areas with the largest number of active attorneys in residence are
- New York (177,035)
- California (170,044)
- Texas (90,485)
- Florida (78,244)
- Illinois (63,422)
The top five areas with the fewest resident attorneys are North Dakota (1,694), Virgin Islands (776), Guam (270), North Mariana Islands (128), and American Samoa (59). Compare these number to 1878 when there were just over 64,000 attorneys in the country!
Where are most cases filed?
The Court Statistics Project reports that more than 95% of U.S. cases are filed in state courts. In 2016, there were approximately 84 million cases filed in state trial courts. State appellate courts had 257,000 appeals filed.
What are the numbers for the federal courts?
U.S. Supreme Court Justices decide which cases they will hear, and it’s roughly 80 each year. They decide another 50 without hearing arguments. The cases they choose usually address constitutional issues or federal law. The Supreme Court gets about 7000 requests to hear cases per year, so there are many cases that don’t get heard.
Statistics for the year ending in March 31, 2017 found that U.S. Courts of Appeals filings rose 10% that total was 58,951—an increase of 5,303 appeals. Civil appeals remained nearly unchanged with just five more cases.
Research also shows that criminal appeals decreased 16% to 10,355, largely because of reductions in appeals related to drug offenses (down 27%), immigration offenses (down 27%), and property offenses (down 14%). Roughly 76% of criminal appeals involved four offense categories: drugs, immigration, firearms and explosives, and property offenses (including fraud).
There were 795,000 bankruptcy court cases filed. Bankruptcy appellate panels reported that filings rose 1%. Bankruptcy appeals decreased 17% to 671. And the U.S. bankruptcy courts received 5% fewer petitions. The federal courts reported that of the 90 bankruptcy courts, 66 reported fewer filings. The largest percentage decrease was a 21% reduction that was seen in the Southern District of Florida. On the flipside, the highest percentage increase was a 20% increase in the District of North Dakota. This was caused by a decline in oil exploration and production in that region in response to lower oil prices.
There were also fewer petitions were filed under chapters 7, 11, and 13 of the bankruptcy code; however, the number of petitions that were filed under Chapter 12— designed for “family farmers” or “family fishermen”— grew by 4% (457).
Circuit Courts of Appeals
When looking at some of the individual Circuits, we see that filings rose by 31 appeals in the Ninth Circuit (up 7%). Filings fell by nine appeals (down 14%) in the First Circuit, by seven appeals (down 12%) in the Tenth Circuit, down by five appeals (down 9%) in the Sixth Circuit, and by one appeal (down 3%) in the Eighth.
However, filings in the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit rose 11%.
The largest numeric increase was in appeals arising from the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office, which jumped by 134 appeals to 680 (up 25%). These 2016-17 numbers show the first time this court surpassed appeals arising from the U.S. District Courts.
United States District Courts
Federal District Courts saw 368,000 cases filed, with 60,000 appeals filed at the Circuit Court level.
U.S. District Court filings of civil cases rose 6%, while filings for defendants charged with crimes dropped 5%. The combined filings for civil cases and criminal defendants in the U.S. district courts grew by 13,598 (up 4%) to 367,937. Terminations increased by 12,173 (up 3%) to 362,628. The total for pending cases and defendants remained relatively static, increasing by 5,242 (up 1%) to 447,077.
When looking at the most frequently filed cases by nature of suit:
- Social Security filings grew 8% to 19,295 as cases involving Social Security retirement and survivors benefits increased 41% (up 280 cases).
- Civil rights filings grew at a rate of 3% from 2015-16 to 2016-17 (up 1,134 cases).
- Cases concerning claims under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), excluding employment cases) rose 26% (up 1,553 cases).
- Cases dealing with environmental matters jumped 107% (up 819 cases). The majority of these claims (more than 400) involved the oil spill from the Deepwater Horizon oil rig. Plus, more than 180 cases addressed claims that Volkswagen’s diesel engines contained software enabling vehicles to evade emissions regulations.
Finally, civil case terminations in the district courts increased 6% to 287,114. The Southern District of West Virginia terminated over 13,888 cases, and most of these were part of multidistrict litigation related to pelvic repair products.
The Western District of Louisiana terminated more than 4,100 cases. Most were part of multidistrict litigation alleging that the diabetes drug Actos increased users’ risk of bladder cancer.
Pending civil cases grew just 1% to 349,666.
Which are the largest federal courts?
The Central District of California is the largest federal district by population. That district includes five counties that make up the Greater Los Angeles metro area. The greater Los Angeles area is estimated to have nearly 19 million residents.
New York City and the adjacent metropolitan area are divided between the Southern District of New York (which includes Manhattan, the Bronx, and Westchester County) and the Eastern District of New York (which includes Brooklyn, Queens, Staten Island, Nassau County, and Suffolk County). The Southern District of New York (41) and the Central District of California (28) are the largest federal districts by number of judges.
Which are the busiest and slowest state courts?
In 2010, the most recent year for which statistics are available, California state courts disposed of nearly 11,000 cases. New York’s tally was over 10,000; Florida saw roughly 17,600 cases; and Texas about 5,800.
On the other end of the spectrum, the South Dakota Supreme Court disposed of just 385 cases; Nebraska’s highest court 323; and the Connecticut Supreme Court handled just 207. The lowest number of cases disposed of was in the Indiana Tax Court: 110.
What other details most interest you about the state of court filing and statistics around case work across the country?