The Continuing Gloom About Federal Judicial Rulemaking

Freer, Richard D. | January 1, 2013

In 2013, the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure turn seventy-five years old. The rulemaking process by which they are promulgated has been a source of gloom for a generation. Like a wayward Hollywood star, the process is in “crisis” and its fans are experiencing “malaise.” This Article addresses the reasons for that gloom and concludes that some level of crisis is inevitable. At the macro level, as Professor Redish has emphasized, judicial rulemaking is a legislative function being performed by an unelected body that is constitutionally empowered only to perform the task of deciding cases and controversies. At the micro level, the Rules Advisory Committee is subject to being second-guessed by Congress, is plagued by uncertainty about the statutory limits of its power under the Rules Enabling Act, and receives inconsistent signals from the Supreme Court concerning the desirability of rulemaking versus case law development. These forces impel the Advisory Committee to avoid clashes with Congress and the Supreme Court by attending to minor matters. Instead of leading, as it is institutionally constituted to do, the Committee has become focused on wordsmithing. The result is an unjustified barrage of trifling changes that burden the bench and bar and squander opportunities to address topics meaningful to the administration of justice. Ultimately, then, the gloom attending the federal judicial rulemaking process is largely the Committee’s fault. Like the wayward star, it should change, a process that starts by understanding the burdens and costs imposed by every procedural change.