Carrying the Load
About 95 percent of all legal cases initiated in the United States are filed in the state courts. “Examining the Work of State Courts”—a joint project of the Conference of State Court Administrators, the Bureau of Justice Statistics and the National Center for State Courts that was released in November—found the total caseloads in state trial courts exceeded the 100 million mark for the seventh consecutive year. The project also revealed that 2009 sustained the record high caseloads experienced in 2008.
Civil, domestic relations, criminal and juvenile cases account for almost half—48 million—of those cases, with traffic violations making up the balance. Courts of general jurisdiction saw an increase of about 1 million cases, while limited jurisdiction courts saw a decrease of roughly the same number. General and limited jurisdiction courts are complementary parts of a two-tiered system and typically divide a caseload based on severity, value, statute or sometimes, geography. Single-tiered systems hear all the cases filed in a state regardless of severity, value, statute or geography. California, Iowa, Illinois, Minnesota, the District of Columbia and Puerto Rico have single-tiered court systems.
The population-adjusted rate of incoming cases was 1 percent higher in 2009 than in 2000, the benchmark year.
The number of judges in general jurisdiction courts varied widely by state, ranging from 1 per 100,000 in South Carolina to 6.8 per 100,000 population in North Dakota. Incoming non-traffic caseloads ranged from 370 cases per judge in Massachusetts to 5,011 per judge in South Carolina. In single-tiered courts, the number of judges ranged from 4.4 per 100,000 population in California to 10.3 per 100,000 population in the District of Columbia. Incoming non-traffic caseloads ranged from 893 cases per judge in Puerto Rico to 2,211 cases per judge in California. About 70 percent of the 106 million incoming cases in state trial courts in 2009 were processed in courts of limited jurisdiction.
Note: Mississippi and Oregon were unable to provide data for 2009.
Cases Per Judge, 2009