Americans wound up in court 100 million times last year. Most often - 99 percent of the time, in fact - there was no need to make a federal case of it.

"For the vast majority of us, justice is sought not at some remote federal courthouse but at the county seat, in a state or local courthouse," said Larry Sipes, president of the National Center for State Courts."That's really the place you most often end up when bumping into the legal system, whether it be traffic cases, divorces, disputes over a will, kids in trouble," Sipes said.

For 12 years, Sipes' organization quietly has helped state courts cope.

"We're in the business of promoting justice by improving state courts," Sipes said.

Many of them nevertheless are considered on the verge of collapse.

A recent American Bar Association report included these findings:

- The civil jury system in 10 states closed down for a while in 1992, and there was undue delay in 10 other states.

- In Detroit, it used to take a few hours to arrange a hearing to remove a child from a dangerous home life, but it now takes up to three days.

- In New Jersey, the gap between filing a noncriminal complaint and getting it to trial is 37 months.

- The average workload of a state judge is three times that for a federal judge.

The nonprofit center Sipes leads is housed in an attractive, red-brick building on a grassy campus a few blocks from Williamsburg's historic colonial district.

Like the Federal Judicial Center in Washington, which serves federal courts, the state court center is part information clearinghouse, research laboratory and school.

What's the best way to handle a notorious and highly publicized case? How can new computers and other technological advances help courts resolve cases more quickly? What are other state courts doing to become more user-friendly? Judges and administrators turn to the center for answers.

Robert C. Murphy, Maryland's highest-ranking judge, believes the center is serving its purpose well. "It's a valuable resource, especially to judges involved in court administration," he said. "You can just pick up the phone and ask for help."

The topics tackled by Eugene Flango, the center's research director, and his staff cover every aspect of judicial administration.

One project, undertaken in partnership with the Justice Department's Bureau of Justice Assistance, has tried since 1987 to focus not on state courts but on those who use them.

The project in 1990 yielded a pamphlet of 22 standards for determining how state trial courts measure up. Areas of concern include safety, physical accessibility, convenience, costs of access, avoiding case backlogs and, perhaps most importantly, a court's "fairness and integrity."

Coming up with the standards was exacting work "but only half the battle," said Murphy, who chaired the commission that oversaw the project.

Now project director Pamela Casey and her staff are monitoring how 12 trial courts in six states - Alabama, California, New Jersey, Ohio, Virginia and Washington - live up to the standards.

"These courts serve as our laboratories," Casey said. "There's an awful lot of distrust of our public agencies right now. Courts want to be perceived as responsible and accountable."

The standards are not aimed at gauging the performance of individual judges. Newly appointed or elected state judges seeking to learn about judging attend the National Judicial College in Reno, Nev.

Judges are seeing their traditional role redefined by societal changes, said Thomas Henderson, who heads the state court center's government relations office in Washington.

"State courts increasingly are becoming social service providers, almost by default," he said. "Domestic relations, child-support, child-abuse cases . . . many of them the residual of a growing criminal docket, all land in state courts."

Brian Ostrom, who leads the center's court statistics project, described his job as "developing a picture of what's going on in 50 state court systems."

"Without statistics, the only things we have to go on are anecdotes. The data make comparisons possible, and sometimes dispels popular misconceptions," he said.

For example, Ostrom said the number of product-liability lawsuits has remained constant nationwide since 1986, at about 3 percent of all personal-injury lawsuits.

"The numbers don't support the contention that product-liability cases have thrown the system out of control," he said.

The center, with 120 employees, operates on a $12 million annual budget. One-third of its money comes from the states, one-third from federal grants and one-third from assistance projects taken on a contract basis.


(Additional information)

New cases

The 10 states with the most new civil cases reported in 1991, the most recent year for which state-by-state statistics are available:

1. California - 1.9 million.

2. New York - 1.56 million.

3. Virginia - 1.42 million.

4. Florida - 924,000.

5. Maryland - 913,000.

6. New Jersey - 911,000.

7. Texas - 857,000.

8. Ohio - 853,000.

9. Illinois - 726,000.

10. Michigan - 725,000.

(Note: The National Center for State Courts compiled separate totals for newly filed juvenile and traffic cases.)

The 10 states with the most new criminal cases reported in 1991:

1. Texas - 1.68 million.

2. California - 1.0 million.

3. North Carolina - 660,000.

4. Florida - 608,000

5. Ohio - 587,000.

6. Virginia - 568,000.

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7. New York - 533,000.

8. Illinois - 498,000.

9. New Jersey - 457,000.

10. Massachusetts - 368,000.

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