New federal court rules are intended to streamline the handling of civil cases, which Chief Justice John Roberts said Thursday is often "too expensive, time consuming, and contentious."
In his annual year-end message, Roberts said the changes "may not look like a big deal at first glance, but they are."
Adopted Dec. 1, the rules encourage greater cooperation among lawyers and more active engagement by judges to keep cases on track. "A well-timed scowl from a trial judge can go a long way in moving things along crisply," Roberts said.
The revised rules also call for more focused sharing of information in the legal process known as discovery, including evidence stored electronically. Parties involved in lawsuits can face punishments if they fail to store digital evidence.
As part of the reforms, the Administrative Office of the U.S. Courts has posted revised forms on its website that can be used by people seeking to represent themselves in federal civil cases.
Roberts praised the federal courts as a means to resolve disputes. He also offered a bit of a history lesson — contrasting civil litigation in the courts to settling arguments through duels, which he said persisted until after the Civil War.
"Our nation lost Alexander Hamilton to a senseless duel in 1804," he said.
"One historian has calculated that, between 1798 and the Civil War, the United States Navy lost two-thirds as many officers to dueling as it did to more than 60 years of combat at sea.
"Reminders of the practice persist. When Kentucky lawyers are admitted to the bar, they are required, by law, to swear that they have not participated in a duel."
Though Roberts said federal judges often face crushing caseloads, his message said 279,036 new civil cases were filed in 2015, a decline of six percent from the year before. Bankruptcy cases were down 11 percent, continuing a five-year trend, to the lowest number since 2007.