The release of the Census Bureau’s 2007 Statistical Abstract of the United States on Thursday led me to poke around with some of the tables on courts, in particular on civil cases filed in federal district courts from 2000 through 2005 (12-month periods ending June 30). The statistics aren’t really new and in fact don’t include the 2006 numbers, which are available on the federal judiciary’s website, and which I tacked on to some of the 2000-2005 numbers. One thing I noticed right away is that there was a big drop in cases filed in federal district courts in 2006, from 282,758 in 2005 to 244,343 in 2006. That’s a fall of almost 14%. In part this results from a spike in personal property damage cases filed in 2005:
I’m guessing that the extra 20,000 or so cases in 2005 were 9/11 cases with statutes of limitations nearing. (Maybe a reader knows for sure.) That accounts for only about half the drop, though, and fewer total cases were filed in 2006 than in any of the preceding six years:
Not only that, but asbestos case filings increased by more than 7000 in 2006, presumably in anticipation of a change in the law. When you put aside that one-time jump, the drop in 2006 case filings appears even more dramatic and encompasses almost every category and subcategory of cases. Amidst the recent discussion of the Supreme Court’s shrinking docket, I haven’t seen much about the corresponding (though less dramatic) shrinking of the district courts’ dockets. I don’t know what the cause is. Perhaps an increasingly conservative judiciary is succeeding in discouraging a wide range of plaintiffs from filing actions. Alternatively, undecided legal issues might be disappearing, unreplenished by any major new legislation, resulting in less uncertainty and so more pre-filing settlements. If someone knows the answer, I’d be curious.