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The “federal courts” took on their now familiar contours over the course of the twentieth century. Three chief justices—William Howard Taft, Earl Warren, and William Rehnquist—played pivotal roles in shaping the institutional, jurisprudential, and physical premises. Taft is well known for promoting a building to house the U.S. Supreme Court and for launching the administrative infrastructure that came to govern the federal courts. Earl Warren’s name has become the shorthand for a jurisprudential shift from state toward federal authority; the Warren Court offered an expansive understanding of the role federal courts could play in enabling access for a host of new claimants seeking an array of rights.
William Rehnquist is identified with limiting both rights and access in favor of state court and of executive authority. He has been less well appreciated for his role in changing the institutional capacity of the federal courts. During the Rehnquist era, the budget of the federal courts doubled as staff and facilities expanded, in part by way of the largest federal building program since the New Deal.
Over the course of the twentieth century and under the leadership of all three chief justices, the judiciary gained an increasingly robust corporate persona. Judges shifted their sights from “court quarters” to custom-designed courthouses and, during Chief Justice Rehnquist’s tenure, obtained billions of dollars to fund new construction. The Administrative Office of the United States Courts came into close contact with two other federal bureaucracies—the General Services Administration and the National Endowment for the Humanities—and developed a program of construction that made massive federal courthouses signature buildings of the federal government.
Changes of the last decades, however, interrupt the narrative of federal judicial growth spiraling ever upward. Flattening rates of filings, vanishing trials, and limitations imposed both by Congress and the Supreme Court on federal court authority make fragile both the monumental aspirations for federal adjudication and the continuing investment of resources in federal judges and in their courts. The cultural capital of the federal courts overshadows that of state and administrative adjudication, but, as federal jurisprudence continues to constrict access, the state courts—with jurists pressing for “Civil Gideon”—are advancing the very agendas that the Warren Court once made “federal” imperatives.
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