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The Vanishing Trial: An Examination of Trials and Related Matters in Federal and State Courts



This article traces the decline in the portion of cases that are terminated by trial and the decline in the absolute number of trials in various American judicial fora. The portion of federal civil cases resolved by trial fell from 11.5 percent in 1962 to 1.8 percent in 2002, continuing a long historic decline. More startling was the 60 percent decline in the absolute number of trials since the mid 1980s. The makeup of trials shifted from a predominance of torts to a predominance of civil rights, but trials are declining in every case category. A similar decline in both the percentage and the absolute number of trials is found in federal criminal cases and in bankruptcy cases. The phenomenon is not confined to the federal courts; there are comparable declines of trials, both civil and criminal, in the state courts, where the great majority of trials occur. Plausible causes for this decline include a shift in ideology and practice among litigants, lawyers, and judges. Another manifestation of this shift is the diversion of cases to alternative dispute resolution forums. Within the courts, judges conduct trials at only a fraction of the rate that their predecessors did, but they are more heavily involved in the early stages of cases. Although virtually every other indicator of legal activity is rising, trials are declining not only in relation to cases in the courts but to the size of the population and the size of the economy. The consequences of this decline for the functioning of the legal system and for the larger society remain to be explored.