The number of new cases brought in District of Columbia Superior Court reached a record low in 2012, with the court seeing fewer new cases filed in almost every division, including the high-volume civil and criminal divisions, according to data recently released by the court.
There were 96,692 new cases filed in Superior Court last year. It was the first year that the number of new cases dropped below 100,000 in recent history, representing a significant drop from the 144,244 new cases filed in 1999, the earliest year that data were readily available. Judges continued to make progress in clearing cases, so the number of pending cases at the end of the year dropped from 38,902 in 2011 to 36,090 last year. Chief Judge Lee Satterfield was not immediately available to discuss this year's numbers.
The civil division, which has the highest caseload of any division, saw its new case filings drop by 4.5 percent to 53,728. The number of new civil cases has, for the most part, steadily dropped since 1999, and the division had a 101 percent clearance rate last year, meaning judges resolved more cases than came in. There were 15,326 civil cases pending at the end of 2012.
In the criminal division, the number of new cases dropped by 11.8 percent to 20,308. New felony cases went down by 16 percent, while federal and local misdemeanor cases dropped by around 14 percent. A spokesman for the U.S. attorney's office, William Miller, said in a statement that prosecutors brought more cases in 2012 involving serious felonies such as armed robbery or burglary, but fewer cases involving less serious felonies and misdemeanors. He noted that his office saw far fewer drug arrests in recent years.
"Our case filings are driven by changing crime trends and law enforcement focus in the District," Miller said, noting there was a noticeable uptick in violent robberies at the start of 2012; those numbers were down by the end of the year, according to Miller.
The civil division's landlord and tenant branch continued to have the single largest caseload in the courthouse, with 36,217 new cases filed in 2012 and 6,034 cases pending at the end of the year. But even that section saw a 1.8 percent drop in new cases from 2011 and a significant decline from a high of 57,621 in 1999.
As the number of new cases dropped, the data show that Superior Court judges made progress in clearing old cases as well. Every division except the tax division, which has the lowest overall caseload, had clearance rates of 100 percent or above.
The District of Columbia Court of Appeals, which serves as the city's highest local court, didn't fare as well when it came to clearing cases last year. The appeals court had an overall clearance rate of 85 percent, which marked the first time in several years that the court failed to resolve more cases than it took in. The appeals court saw an 18 percent jump in new filings, from 1,803 in 2011 to 2,126 last year.
Chief Judge Eric Washington said the uptick in new cases was the main reason for the lower clearance rate. He pointed to new filings that covered multiple individual cases, such as one real estate matter filed last year that involved more than 100 consolidated cases. He also noted that the court went through significant judicial turnover in recent years. New judges can't take on a full caseload at once, he said, although he added that they were "diligently" working to carry their weigh despite the learning curve.
The appeals court, which has faced criticism over how long it takes judges to issue decisions, continued to push down the number of days it took to resolve cases. The average and median number of days to resolve cases both went down in 2012; the median amount of time the court took to resolve appeals was 352 days (a little less than a year), while the average was 427 days (a little more than a year).
Washington detailed several changes the court made in recent years to speed up cases: placing a priority on resolving the oldest pending cases; changing the screening process for new cases to more efficiently schedule oral arguments; encouraging parties to file dispositive motions earlier in the process; increasing the size of the court's central legal staff to aid judges; and "aggressively" using senior judges.
"The judges are working extremely hard to resolve the cases that come before us," Washington said.