The reformers who drafted the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure in the 1930’s thought that if we could only get rid of the complexities of ancient pleading practices, and liberalize discovery, cases could be fairly adjudicated on their merits instead of being won or lost on technicalities. Their intent can be gleaned from Rule 1, which provides that the rules “should be construed and administered to secure the just, speedy, and inexpensive determination of every action and proceeding.”
To a large extent, the simplified rules we have been living with for so many years must be judged a success, simply because they have stood the test of time. On the other hand, hardly anyone would say that Rule 1 accurately describes the way civil cases are currently processed. We have encrusted the original simple pamphlet enacted in 1938 with so much commentary and interpretation that the rules are on their way to becoming as arcane as the system they were designed to replace. We no longer administer the rules to remove roadblocks to just, speedy and inexpensive determinations of every action and proceeding. Instead we have created so many new roadblocks–mainly the burden of expensive discovery, but also new opportunities for motions–that the whole premise of the federal rules project must be called in question.
The rules ought to be re-written and streamlined again from top to bottom, which would be an endeavor comparable in scope to the original project. Such a revamping should recognize that the vast majority of cases are never going to be adjudicated on the merits. Since most cases are settled, the rules should better incorporate alternative forms of dispute resolution. A simplified set of rules could also eliminate steps that are unnecessary for the vast majority of cases that not going to trial, and could also encourage parties to move toward resolution rather than engaging in wasteful adversarial behavior. At the same time, simplifying the rules could make it possible for more cases to go to trial, because the cost of litigation would present less of an obstacle. (My own radical proposal for an overhaul of the federal rules can be found here.)
One commendable effort to reform the rules has been undertaken by the American College of Trial Lawyers and the Institute for the Advancement of the American Legal System. The task force has compiled a set of principles that still exalt the ideals of Rule 1, and that seek to create more flexibility and proportionality in the civil justice system to allow cases to be resolved in more appropriate ways. Some of these ideas are being incrementally adopted in amendments to the Federal Rules.
I’m not sure I will live long enough, however, to see the kind of wholesale reform that I think is needed. There is too much resistance to change in the fearful legal profession. And there is too much partisanship and paralysis in the political system to allow that kind of change. That means that the only practical way now to create the kind of streamlined dispute resolution process that would live up to the ideals of Rule 1 is to do it at least partially outside the purview of the court system. More on how to do that in subsequent posts.