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An Unmanageable Case Management in Courts

Introduction

The number of cases filed in courts has been on the rise over the years, and in turn, this has led to an increase in case backlog in the judicial system. Peak (2009) notes that delay in cases processing has been experienced in the US court system for a very long time now. This is what William Gladstone concluded as justice denied resulting from delayed justice (Goerdt, McMillan & Steelman, 2004). Intensified war on drugs through arrests has increased case backlogs as well as trial delays. According to Peak (2009), these delays deny defendants their constitutional right to a speedy trial, as provided for in the Sixth Amendment. Besides, delays in case processing could also have significant setbacks on justice and increase the federal/state spending on offenders. Such delays are what is being experienced in “An Unmanageable Case-Management Quandary” case study. A court that had disposed of around 700 cases in a month, now only manages to hear roughly 400 civil cases as well as 100 criminal cases. On the contrary case filings in the court have doubled in the last seven-year. This court adopts a hybrid case-management system where it combines individual and master calendar systems to optimize performance. However, this has not yielded considerable improvement in the case management and reduction of backlogs.

Merits and difficulties of a hybrid combination of case management systems

A hybrid system or team calendar combines elements of the approaches applied in both calendars. In this case, the judges of a case division or court are organized in teams. Under the hybrid case-management system adopted by the court in the case study, a team of judges is appointed to manage case division or a stage for a specific period and then rotated to another case division for a given period. In this case study, two judges serve in the criminal cases division for a month and then rotated to the civil cases division, where they serve as a team of four judges. A hybrid/team calendar has both benefits and demerits.

According to Keilitz, Kirven, Murphy, Raaen, and Steelman (2011), a hybrid approach of case management allows judges to manage their cases as is applied in the individual-calendar system while having procedures for judges to support each other when one of the judges in the division has an overscheduled calendar. The other judges assigned the division for that particular period could also provide backup in cases where one of the judges is disqualified or absent. This helps attain trial date certainty. A Hybrid case-management system also gives a team of judges, specific responsibility, as well as accountability for cases. This motivates performance among judges as it fosters inter-team competition, as well as positive rivalry in each team (Keilitz et al., 2011).

A Hybrid case-management system also has its weaknesses which may mirror its strengths. In a hybrid system, the success of each team relies on the team spirit, as well as quality of relations among the judges making up the team. Furthermore, procedures and practices may be inconsistent across teams in different divisions, especially when there is no proper overall level of management or within each team. This means that if duties are not well coordinated among judges in a team, then the performance of the team may affect the case flows in the court. Besides, this system may also create scheduling conflicts particularly for busy trial attorneys who complete their responsibilities or cases before other teams.

Individual calendar system

Peak (2009) states that in an individual calendar approach, a case is assigned to a judge at random, who thereafter takes charge of all court hearings as well as case progress. In this case, the judge is responsible for motions and conferences of the case is filed for, hearings, dispositions, as well as, post-disposition matters. Again, this system also has advantages and disadvantages.

According to Keilitz et al. (2011), the strength of the system lies in each judge’s responsibility for his or her caseload. The judge, therefore, becomes more motivated to implement management control since he or she is accountable for the timely disposition of cases. Often, judges are assigned cases that they are best suited to handle. As they handle more cases of similar nature, they become even more familiar with each case, and therefore they need not relearn or refresh their knowledge on the issues as well as facts at every stage of case proceedings. Again, this system has a higher probability of producing consistent rulings since the case is handled by one judge. Thus, it limits the possibility of “judge shopping” by attorneys involved in the case, as they seek to obtain a judge who would most likely make favorable decisions on their side (Keilitz et al., 2011).

An individual calendar system also has weaknesses. Since judges have different workload management capacities, this system may lead to differences in cases disposition duration, as well as variations in procedures plus practices for cases with similar nature. Moreover, in this approach, judges are only concerned about their cases. Such isolation among judges experienced because of the adoption of this system may be exacerbated. Consequently, there could be no incentive to support each other with the daily calendar problems. Lack of coordination among judges, which results from the adoption of this system, may create scheduling conflicts for a trial lawyer representing different defendants (State Justice Institute, 2010). This occurs when an attorney is a representative in two cases scheduled to take place at the same time. Again, if we compare this system to the master calendar system, we realize that it is likely to necessitate more support staff, as well as related resources for every judge since each judge is in charge of managing his or her calendar.

Master Calendar System

In this system, a team of judges is assigned to oversee particular court events in the cases brought before them. Just like in the case study, judges are only assigned to conduct a particular activity. They only hear matters at just one stage of the case process.

Master calendar systems help pool available judges, to maximize the utilization of judge time to deal with cases that are set for hearing. This minimizes delays for parties involved in trial-ready cases (Keilitz et al., 2011). This can also help ensure certainty to trial dates since the pooling of judges helps accommodate any crucial adjustments, which may occur at the last minute due to over-scheduling of the court calendar. Since judges conduct similar pretrial proceedings under this system, they are likely to apply uniform court policies especially on matters like pretrial activities as well as continuances. Finally, the master calendar system allows judges to become more specialized in certain case activities for which they would be able to perform best.

Some strengths of this system may also be its weaknesses. Overscheduling as the court tries to optimize judge time may introduce uncertainty, and hence reduce the consistency of trial dates. Worse still, it becomes very difficult to identify the responsibility of delays. In addition, success highly relies on judges’ availability to be assigned case activities. Judges are less motivated to update their docket as they receive one case after another. Again, this system can also lead to unequal work distribution especially if one judge or a group of judges are slower than others in the same team (Peak, 2009). Overspecialization may also create a problem as judges could lose contact with the challenges experienced by other judges conducting other assignments.

Specific problems which could arise in the criminal division

The criminal division is the most affected by the hybrid system of case management adopted by the court. One such problem likely to be experienced in the criminal division is reduced consistency in court rulings. Since these judges are rotated after every month, they do not get the opportunity to familiarize themselves with the procedures and practices of every stage of the cases. According to the Sixth Amendment, a criminal case should take 100 days to be disposed of (Peak, 2009). This means that one case may be handled by at least three different judges at different stages. They only handle events scheduled for that month and return to the civil division. Thus, they do not get the opportunity to perform case events that they are best at. This could also give leeway for judge-shopping in the last stages of case progress, by attorneys with the knowledge of the operations of the court. Furthermore, the outcome of a case in the criminal division could be affected if the judges who had handled previous proceedings had missed to include critical case information.

Again, the criminal division is likely to experience delays as scheduled trial dates are likely to be affected, making the case lose its credibility. The two judges assigned to the division every month have separate duties. This means that the two judges do not have a backup to provide support in case of absenteeism or serious case problems which require consultations. Besides, no particular judge is accountable for the timely disposition of cases in the division since they are only there temporarily. As a result, criminal cases could take longer than expected especially if a judge in a specific period is slow and lacks incentives to speed up cases.

Specific problems which could be created if a permanent judge were to be assigned the juvenile division

One problem that may occur if a judge were to be made permanent in the juvenile division is a conflict of interest. This could happen if a case involving a child with whom the judge has some affiliation is brought before him or her for hearing. Given the few judges, and the case backlogs currently experienced in this court, it would be difficult to find a replacement who would preside over the case.

Another problem that could result from such a scenario is that the judge could accumulate personal power within the juvenile division. In effect, this can lead to the adoption of practices and procedures which may lower the credibility of juvenile-related cases in the court.

The decision to make one judge out of the six judges, permanent, may also cause overall case backlogs within the court. Juvenile-related cases are generally lower than other cases (Peak, 2009). This means that the judge will have dead time, while the large backlog continues to pile since this implies that he or she will not be involved in other assignments in the civil and criminal divisions.

Probable advantages

This decision could have several significant merits. There will be a judge to take administrative responsibility for juvenile-related cases. A permanent assignment to the juvenile court will make the judge responsible for his or her actions in the division. It also becomes easy to maintain individual calendaring since there will be just one calendar. Scheduling as well as other case management requirements also become less demanding. Additionally, the judge will be more familiar with the juvenile cases due to specialization. This may improve the credibility of juvenile-related cases disposed of in the court. This means that there will be considerable improvements in the quality of decisions, as well as court processes in the juvenile division (Rose, 2007). Consistency in the ruling will also be achieved since attorneys will not have the opportunity to influence the selection of a judge who could compromise case outcomes. Juvenile-related case backlogs will also reduce significantly given that these cases are usually fewer. The judge will be more motivated to exercise management control over his or her judicial career.

Recommendations

These statistics collected by the court provide a measure of whether judicial and court officials are meeting the minimum expectations. As a result, the monthly records for court filings as well as motions filed should be used to convince the governor’s office or the judicial administration to increase the personnel, particularly judges to reduce the existing workload. This information is very important in planning and budget decisions as the court improve its strategies for reducing case delays (Clemens & Stancil, 2009). Employing additional judges will reduce case processing time. The statistics can also be used to plan what can be reasonable and realistically accomplished during a specific time, and therefore set credible trial dates.

Information on the filed court cases and motions should also be used to allocate judges who can provide backup while making trial scheduling. This will help save unavoidable uncertainties such as scheduling problems related to the length of trials, which could affect trial dates (Goerdt, McMillan & Steelman, 2004). This also allows for the judge’s extra trial calendar responsibilities to be transferred to the backup judge once the trial begins.

From the records of court filings as well as motions filed, the court should be able to adopt a differentiated case management (DCM) system. Certain court cases are often complex, and therefore require special judicial attention (Goerdt, McMillan & Steelman, 2004). This means that the records should be used to make court procedures and practices flexible to allow pure individual calendar approaches in some cases or to apply a hybrid system in other cases as may be deemed necessary. This means that the statistics should be used to categorize cases depending on the amount of attention that they require from both judges and attorneys, as well as the pace they need to proceed to a conclusion.

These statistics should also be used to consider encouraging alternative case settlement methods. Arbitrations and mediations could help reduce the case backlogs currently experienced in this court. This will also reduce case delays which have been the norm in the court. Arbitration and mediations are faster as long as both parties can agree to negotiate on the dispute.

The statistics should be used to determine the adoption of pre-exam weaver hearings. Under this program, defendants facing criminal charges related to drugs, guns, as well as, auto theft charges, waive their first-round examinations a week earlier (Peak, 2009). This allows court prosecutors plus police to present their investigation results much more quickly.

Other case flow management reports

With the various kinds of cases, court events, pleadings, as well as, court documents, other data are needed for case flow management purposes. These should include data on the status of each case, and court-wide caseload data which should comprise clearance ratio, continuance reports, pending caseloads, backup index, as well as age at which each case is disposed.

Conclusion

Despite the many changes that have taken place in the court system and case management, more needs to be done to reduce the current court case delays. Adopting a hybrid case management approach may not help produce the expected results, and therefore, it is important to adopt a differentiated case management approach.

Reference List

Clemens, A. M., & Stancil, J. H. R. (2009). Unhandcuffing justice: Proposals to return rationality to criminal sentencing. Florida Bar Journal, 83(2), 54.

Goerdt, J. A., McMillan, J. E, & Steelman, D. C. (2004). Caseflow management: The heart of court management in the new millennium. Denver: The National Center for State Courts.

Keilitz, I., Kirven, M. B., Murphy, L., Raaen, N, & Steelman, D. (2011). Twelve steps to enhance the efficiency of the court operations in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania. Denver: The National Center for State Courts.

Peak, K. J. (2009). Justice administration: Police, courts, and corrections management, Sixth Edition. Upper Saddle River, New Jersey: Prentice Hall.

Rose, K. J. (2007). Pretrial justice: Principles and practice. Corrections Today, 69(3): 72.

State Justice Institute. (2010). Municipal Court City of Seattle, Washington: Improving criminal case processing, Final Report October 15, 2010. Denver: The National Center for State Courts.

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