Federal judges' organizations should avoid taking official positions on what sentences should be required for certain federal crimes, says Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist.

In a year-end report, the chief justice noted that the U.S. Judicial Conference has said it opposes mandatory minimum sentences for some federal crimes. The conference is the federal judiciary's board of directors."The basis for this opposition was that the mandatory minimum tended to skew the philosophy behind the sentencing guidelines that Congress also enacted," Rehnquist said.

But he said judges' views should count no more than anyone else's on such questions as whether federal sentences should emphasize deterrence instead of punishment, or what is an appropriate sentence for a particular offense.

"In such cases I do not believe that the Judicial Conference, or other judicial organizations, should take an official position," Rehnquist said. Judges can state their personal opinions, but they should use caution in doing so, he said.

However, Rehnquist said it is "obviously appropriate" for judges to make comments and proposals on their pay and caseloads.

"It is only natural that judges should want to have a say as to what Congress does with respect to the judiciary," he said.

The chief justice said the number of new cases filed in federal courts rose only slightly in 1994 but that could change if Congress makes federal cases of more crimes and civil disputes.

"The current climate in the country and the U.S. Congress increases the likelihood that federal jurisdiction will continue to be expanded," Rehnquist said. "Should such expansion take place, this year's (trend) in caseload may quickly reverse."

"There is considerable sentiment in the federal judiciary at the present time against further expansion of federal jurisdiction into areas which have been previously the province of state courts enforcing state laws," the chief justice added.

Congress decides such questions, "but the future shape and contours of the federal courts is surely a legitimate subject for judicial input to Congress," Rehnquist said.

Rehnquist said the number of new cases filed in federal district courts rose by 2 percent in 1994, to 281,900. The number of civil lawsuits rose by 3 percent, while there was a decrease in new criminal cases, bankruptcy cases and appeals to federal circuit courts.

Asbestos cases were mainly responsible for a 23 percent increase in new federal personal injury product liability cases, while there also were increases in civil rights cases and lawsuits filed by prisoners.

Four of the previous five years had seen reductions in the total number of new federal cases.

Rehnquist praised President Clinton and the Senate for filling 101 federal judgeships in 1994, the highest number since 1980.