Cornell Law Review


Six-month list, Judicial accountability, Federal judiciary, Court backlogs


A little-known mechanism instituted to improve judicial accountability and speed up the work of the federal judiciary has led to unintended consequences, many of them unfortunate. Federal district court judges are subject to a soft deadline known as the Six-Month List (the List). By law, every judge's backlog (cases older than three years and motions pending more than six months) is made public twice a year. Because judges have life tenure and fixed salaries, a mere reporting requirement should not influence their behavior. But it does. Using the complete record of all federal civil cases between 1980 and 2017 and a hand-coded sample of summary judgment motions, we demonstrate that the List leads judges to close substantially more cases and decide more motions in the week immediately before it is compiled. While average motion processing time is shortened by ten to thirty days, duration is actually lengthened for some motions (those for which the deadline is least pressing). Moreover, we find suggestive evidence that the List has substantive consequences: in an effort to comply with the List, judges may be making more errors. Theory suggests that giving judges an incentive for faster case processing is probably a mistake. But because this incentive is Congressionally-mandated, it cannot be eliminated by the judiciary unilaterally. We offer an alternative mechanism that will limit distortions until Congress acts to relieve the federal courts of this unnecessary burden.