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The litigation explosion: how courts can relieve overloaded dockets

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A Texas man hauls his local school board into court over the lowering of his daughter's grade for unexcused tardiness. A Georgia plaintiff files suit to have Ohio declared illegal, claiming that Congress never properly made it a state.

A convicted murderer prefers charges against prison authorities for refusing him access to a stereo cassette player so he can listen to religious tapes.

Are these examples of frivolous litigation or legitimate (if not a bit bizarre) challenges to injustices? This is a tough question, with which the legal system is grappling in several ways.

Obviously, it would be advantageous to devise an efficient way to cull out the preposterous and the frivolous claims and relieve already overloaded court dockets.

One practical measure to discourage borderline suits might be to require initial proof that there is a legitimate legal issue. Another might be to charge plaintiffs a ''good faith'' filing cost.

A federal district judge in Illinois - concerned about the rising tide of prisoner complaints coming to the courts - has moved in the latter direction. Judge Harold A. Baker now requires inmates who believe their civil rights have been violated to post $4 to $5 in ''up-front money'' before filing their suits in court. And, according to the Federal Judicial Center in Washington, D.C., more than 90 other jurisdictions follow a similar practice.

Judge Baker and other jurists will waive these costs for indigent prisoners. Civil rights lawyers stress, however, that some suits that seem frivolous on the surface may raise important constitutional issues. They argue that a superficial preliminary test of legitimacy may be unfair and that a token filing fee may tend to discourage bona fide complaints.


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