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In Year-End Report, Roberts Focuses on Duels to the Death

A few hours before the clock struck midnight last Thursday, ushering in the new year, the Supreme Court released its annual year-end report. Unlike other "year in review" retrospectives, the High Court's look back tends to be a bit dry, focusing on statistics from the federal court system.

But Chief Justice Roberts wasn't willing to let the 2015 Year-End Report on the Federal Judiciary be just another boring exercise in statistical reporting. Instead, he framed his report with a discussion of good, old-fashioned duels to the death.

Can't Get Into the Courts? Grab Your Pistol.

Chief Justice Roberts begins his look back at 2015 by reminding us that, "in 1838, John Lyde Wilson, a former governor of South Carolina, made a grim contribution to the literature of dispute resolution" when he published The Code of Honor, a sort of Federal Rules of Procedure for killing your opponents in duels.

The short book, "sized to fit comfortably alongside a gentleman's matched pair of dueling pistols," covers everything from responding to an insult to whether you can watch your opponent load his pistol.

(Tips for prospective duelists: don't react to insults publicly and yes, you can witness the loading, but it's a bit uncouth, "as gentlemen may be safely trusted in the matter.")

Governor Wilson's purpose was to ensure that duels take place according to clear, fair rules in cases "where there is no tribunal to do justice to an oppressed and deeply wronged individual." Chief Justice Roberts invokes that code for a similar end. Though dueling is "inherently uncivilized," the battlefield of the courts "must be governed by sound rules of practice and procedure."

Non-Dueling Notes From the Report

So, besides the history of dueling in America (don't forget, duels claimed the life of Alexander Hamilton and were not uncommon before the Civil War) what useful information did the Chief Justice's report reveal?

First, the 2015 amendments to the Federal Rules of Procedure matter, almost as much as who gets to pull their pistol first in a duel. "The amendments may not look like a big deal at first glance, but they are," the Chief Justice writes. Those amendments emphasized the duty to achieve speedy resolutions, instituted new proportionality requirements for discovery, and addressed electronically stored information for the first time.

Statistically speaking, the Year-End Report's major news is that cases are down, but only slightly. In its October 2014 Term, cases filed in the Supreme Court declined by 4.65 percent to over just 7,000 filings. Cases filed in forma pauperis dropped a bit more, by 5.5 percent, but still made up the vast majority of filings -- 5,488 in total. Only 75 of those thousands of potential cases were decided last year.

In the federal courts, appellate filings dropped as well, by four percent. Civil appeals made up the bulk of that drop, down seven percent, while criminal, administrative, and bankruptcy appeals grew between three and seven percent.

The number of legal matters resolved by duel held steady however, with zero gentlemen killed in duels in 2015.

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