02 February 2005

Dockets and Mandates from the Mount

The courthouse at which I do about 80% of my work is a pretty busy place. The General District Court always has at least one criminal and one traffic court going. Once upon a time it had a case docketing system1 that worked better than I've seen elsewhere. Now, I'm not saying it's the best in the Commonwealth, just that it worked well. Then the Virginia Supreme Court intervened.

Now, there is this big mythos about how this came about. Hearsay to the nth degree has it that the Chief Justice got a ticket in another county (which shall remain nameless) and then spent several hours in court waiting for his case to be called only to have it continued. Then he came back and spent several more hours waiting before someone realized who he was and took care of it that instant. From this experience the Chief Justice decided that the docketing system in all jurisdictions needed to be fixed. Is this really what happened? Who knows? Attorneys gossip just like everybody else and this could all be a foundationless rumor. I couldn't even tell you who first told me the story but I've heard it a number of times.

Anyway, a command came down: no one is to wait longer than a hour to have their case called. The general reaction among those who work in trial courts was something along the lines of "He's got to be kidding." He wasn't. So courts started changing their dockets so that the dictate would appear to be followed. I say "appear" because the goal, while laudable, isn't realistic.

My primary jurisdiction used to run like this: There were two times at which cases were docketed, 8:30 a.m. and 1:00 p.m. Court would always start a little late so that cases could be discussed and deals cut.2 In fact, local lore has it that the reason the judges decided to start at 8:30 in the morning was so that all this could be done before 9:00 a.m. when court was really supposed to start. Anyway, by doing this court usually starts 15-20 minutes late but saves all sorts of time by resolving things so that they are a 5 minute plea rather than a 30 minute trial. It also allows the deputies and clerks time to work in conjunction to determine who is going to ask for a continuance, ask for driving school, plead guilty, or have a hearing.

Once the judge sat and cases began to be called there was a certain order. Continuance requests came first. Guilty pleas came second; in traffic court there would also be traffic court requests at this time. Finally, there were preliminary hearings and trials. Even then, the clerks and attorneys tried to estimate how much time a hearing would take and place the longer ones at the end. Of course, there were days when the docket would run long and there were days when the docket would be done in 1/2 a hour but I'd estimate that the average time from the first case called to the last was probably about 2 1/2 hours.

I can already see the eyebrows raised out there in cyberspace. 2 1/2 hours to have your case called? Isn't that a long time to sit in court? Well, yes. But you must realize that not many people have to wait that long and those who do are often the one's in lockup already (who are going to be waiting somewhere whether they've been tried yet or not). Most cases fall in the guilty plea category and there are always a fair number of continuances. I'd say 80% (maybe even 90%) of the people who walked in the front door were out of the court within a hour to a hour and half. Then came those few who had trials or preliminary hearings.

It worked. It didn't suffer from the flaws of the old-style cattle call with every defendant for the entire day arriving at 9:00 a.m. and the court running until the judge decides to break for lunch and then starting back up and running until everybody was finished. Under that system a lot of people could spend 3 or 4 hours in court (more if you were unlucky enough to be called after lunch). Nor did it suffer from the flaws of dockets which are split into time periods which are too small and always have troubles because of their inflexibility. OMG you've never seen a docket more screwed up than one where there is a series of hearings set to take five or ten minutes at specific times over 3 hours and the third hearing actually has witnesses and a legal argument running a hour plus and throwing off the rest of the docket. A docket which invariably runs late because the estimated time per hearing is always too short (although it can run on time if there are enough failures to appear) gets thrown off so that everybody gets stuck in court longer and longer and longer.

But of course, all that's over now. Our dockets are now split so that someone who looks at them on paper will think that everyone is getting in front of the judge in a hour. We now have dockets at 8:30, 10:00, 1:00, & 2:30. It messes everything up. The 8:30 and 1:00 dockets run pretty much as they did before and most of the people get out in a timely manner. However, the 10:00 and 2:30 dockets are bad.

Those people who come in for the later dockets are stuck in court waiting for the earlier courts to end. Somebody who comes in for a continuance doesn't spend the 30 minutes he might have before waiting for his case to be called. Now he has to wait for the two preliminary hearings and the 6 witness A&B cross warrant case to finish before his continuance. After that there's probably going to be a recess during which the lawyers talk over the cases for the next docket and the clerks try to figure out how the citizens in the next docket will be pleading so they can be arranged efficiently. Everybody's pushed back and most wait for a longer period than they would have previously.

Our clerks and judges aren't dumb. They've limited the number of cases being put in the later dockets in order to ameliorate this. Still, when all the courts used to closed before 4:00 almost every day and now courts are open not too irregularly after 5 p.m. you know something is wrong. In the future, should these dockets expand the court will have a night court whether the General Assembly has agreed to pay for it or not (and somebody's got to pay those deputies and clerks).

All-in-all, it's probably the best solution for a bad situation. Our judges can't ignore a command from the Chief Justice so they try to make it cause as little damage as possible. I'd bet good money that the average time a defendant spends waiting for his trial has increased because of this. How much? I don't know. Hopefully, with the damage control that is being done, not too much. Maybe we'll find out when the next wave hits; the rumor mill has it that the Supreme Court's next move will be to make the general district courts time each case. Wanna see some bogus record keeping? Just wait until the already harassed clerk has to write in a length of time for each and every one of the 75 people who are asking the judge for traffic court. 30 seconds, 30 seconds, 30 seconds, 30 seconds . . . .

1 For those of you who don't speak "courtese" docketing is the setting of cases at a particular time.

2 Why don't we work all these things out ahead of time? Well, a lot of times the court-appointed client only contacts the defense attorney on the day of court. The prosecutor may not be able to contact his witnesses before court (especially in a civilian sworn complaint). Defense attorneys aren't given copies of the police report and often interview the officer in the courtroom to find out his side of the story. Sure, I could call every officer about every misdemeanor but I'd spend most days playing phone tag all day with officers and about the 8th time in one month I call officer Smith about a reckless driving by speed (over 80 mph) he's probably going to stop returning my calls. I want officer Smith to call me back when I call him about the vehicular manslaughter case.

1 comment:

moi said...

In Connecticut everything starts at 9am and runs until it ends with a break for lunch usually around 1:00pm. This ofcourse involves lots of waiting around, especially if you are a public defender, because they call cases with private attorneys first, using the logic that private attorneys aren't tied to one courthouse and might have cases in others and therefore have to leave earlier. So usually the public defender cases are called around 11:00. Then the judge usually calls a recess around 1!:30 for about 10 minutes which generally stretches into 40. This means that there's spillover into the afternoon session which is supposed to start at 2, but doesn't actually start till 2:15. This is quite annoying because some days you get done with arraignments shortly past 2:30 and this doesn't leave much time to meet with clients in lock up and enter pleas on disposed cases.

It's more of a free for all. Everyone show up and wait. Perhaps splitting it into 4 different dockets is a better idea in principle.