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Federal Trials Drop as Court Cases Rise in a Longtime Trend


— December 13, 2003

On television and in the popular imagination, lawsuits and prosecutions end in trials, in open court before a jury. In reality, according to a new study, trials have become quite uncommon.

In 1962, the study says, 11.5 percent of all civil cases in federal court went to trial. By last year, that number had dropped to 1.8 percent. And even though there are five times as many lawsuits today, the raw number of civil trials has dropped, too. They peaked in 1985 at 12,529. Last year, 4,569 civil cases were tried in federal court.

“What’s documented here,” William G. Young, the chief judge of the Federal District Court in Boston, said in a telephone interview, “is nothing less than the passing of the common law adversarial system that is uniquely American.” . . .

“[T]his is a cultural shift of enormous significance,” said Arthur Miller, a law professor at Harvard.

Lawyers debate whether or not this trend is a positive development. When I started out at a big civil litigation firm, the top litigation partner, who is a very prominent lawyer, told me that having to take a case to trial is usually a sign that the attorneys had failed. That’s because if your case is strong, you should win it on motions, and if your case is weak, you should see that and settle. In any event, The New York Times reports the trend here.


On television and in the popular imagination, lawsuits and prosecutions end in trials, in open court before a jury. In reality, according to a new study, trials have become quite uncommon.

In 1962, the study says, 11.5 percent of all civil cases in federal court went to trial. By last year, that number had dropped to 1.8 percent. And even though there are five times as many lawsuits today, the raw number of civil trials has dropped, too. They peaked in 1985 at 12,529. Last year, 4,569 civil cases were tried in federal court.

“What’s documented here,” William G. Young, the chief judge of the Federal District Court in Boston, said in a telephone interview, “is nothing less than the passing of the common law adversarial system that is uniquely American.” . . .

“[T]his is a cultural shift of enormous significance,” said Arthur Miller, a law professor at Harvard.

Lawyers debate whether or not this trend is a positive development. When I started out at a big civil litigation firm, the top litigation partner, who is a very prominent lawyer, told me that having to take a case to trial is usually a sign that the attorneys had failed. That’s because if your case is strong, you should win it on motions, and if your case is weak, you should see that and settle. In any event, The New York Times reports the trend here.

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