Trial judges seek to improve judicial efficiency

July 27, 2001

Trial judges across the state are evaluating court systems in an effort to identify ways to improve judicial efficiency. Several courts have made changes in response to a pending proposal before the Supreme Court to set time standards for trial courts.

Circuit Judge Richard W. McKenzie of the 12th Circuit Court and Chancellor Edward E. Patten Jr. of the 15th Chancery Court said in interviews Thursday that they will rely upon status conferences with lawyers to sort out fast-track cases and potentially time-consuming ones.

Patten said that starting in August, he will require status conferences for all cases filed after July 1 in his district, which includes Copiah and Lincoln counties.

"If I have that status conference at the beginning of the case, I'll be able to get a feel for what's going to be involved in that case," Patten said. "I have great hopes that it will work and ultimately it will save time."

Patten said, "At that status conference, I'm going to find out what the prospects for settlement are and I'm going to try to get them to agree to a discovery deadline. The order will have an agreed trial date that will be within the time limits of the proposed time standards."

Patten's plan is similar to U.S. District Court case management, which uses conferences with magistrates and scheduling orders to identify time frames for the advancement of cases.

"Whether or not the time standards are adopted, I'm going to use those time limits as kind of a yardstick on moving my cases along," Patten said.

The Supreme Court on June 14 adopted proposed voluntary time standards and opened a 90-day period for public comment. About 20 commentaries have been submitted to the office of the Supreme Court Clerk. The Supreme Court will revisit the issue after the public comment period ends Sept. 12.

A group of trial judges is expected to meet Aug. 17 with the Supreme Court's Rules Committee to discuss time standards. The Rules Committee is made up of Presiding Justice Fred L. Banks Jr., Presiding Justice Chuck McRae and Justice William L. Waller Jr.

Patten said, "I think an orderly disposition of cases is something that the courts should do and should be involved in on a hands-on basis."

Patten himself is digging through some of the files to determine why cases are pending and what needs to be done with them. Patten said he has to do the evaluation himself.

"I'm taking them file by file and trying to determine the status of the case," Patten said.

Some have gone stale on the court's docket. A typical example is a divorce case in which the parties had reconciled, but had left the complaint for divorce open. Those kinds of cases will be dismissed.

Patten is personally calling attorneys in pending estate cases to determine why the cases remain open and what needs to be done with them.

Another category of cases in Patten's court involves those filed by the Department of Human Services. Patten requested an attorney for DHS to identify all those cases in which the agency has been unable to locate the defendant. He plans to dismiss cases which have been filed for more than a year without process being served upon the defendant.

Patten called upon the Administrative Office of Courts to identify every pending case from his district. Patten said a comparison of those reports with the court's own files revealed that about half of the cases shown as pending were indeed concluded, but were not noted as completed in the Administrative Office of Courts' electronic database.

Efforts are underway to fix that problem.

In the 12th Circuit Court in Forrest and Perry counties, McKenzie in June called for a "brainstorming session" with law officers, prosecutors and defense lawyers. As a result of discussions with McKenzie, investigative information will be provided more quickly to defense attorneys. Information furnished sooner to the defense will allow lawyers to sort out cases likely to result in guilty pleas and cases that must be tried. That will help expedite some of the cases.

Law enforcement and prosecutors that McKenzie calls a "selectivity committee" will screen cases before they ever get to the Circuit Court and divert some to county or municipal courts for handling as misdemeanors.

In the past, some cases presented to grand juries for indictment were later pleaded down to misdemeanors in Circuit Court. "Some cases may not even need to be presented to the grand jury and could be decided in lesser courts," McKenzie said.

McKenzie said he also hopes to better utilize pretrial diversion, a program which allows people charged with minor offenses to be placed on probation and to have their cases placed in an inactive file.

"We have not utilized it as much as it could have been," McKenzie said of pretrial diversion.

Defendants have the prospects of a trip back to court to encourage good behavior.

"You have the case to hold over their heads. If they don't successfully complete probation, you just put them back on the active docket," McKenzie said.

"You've got more serious cases and you can spend your time on them rather than looking at all the things that just clutter the system," McKenzie said. "It's just a matter of prioritizing. We need to be more concerned about more serious cases."

Supreme Court Chief Justice Edwin L. Pittman commended trial judges' efforts to identify problems and find solutions.

Referring to Patten, Pittman said, "I appreciate the fact that he is opening every file to make sure it has been appropriately disposed of by the court."

Circuit Judge James Graves of the 7th Circuit in Hinds County in an interview Thursday said he already has in place efficiency measures that work. Judge Graves in 10 years on the bench has maintained a computerized docket. He requires attorneys and prosecutors in criminal cases to attend the old-fashioned docket call at the beginning of the court term.

The computerized docket utilized by Graves and three other circuit judges in the district helps track cases. "You need to know what you've got," Graves said. "You can't move something if you don't know you've got it."

At docket call, "We call every single case on the criminal docket and determine what its status is -- whether they intend to plead or go to trial. We have a cutoff date for guilty pleas. If you don't do it by that date, too bad. You missed it," Graves said. "If they are going to plead, the lawyers don't have to get ready for trial."

"You have some certainty for case status, and that's beneficial to everyone," Graves said.

But the unexpected can throw a scheduled case off track, Graves said. For instance, if a key witness for the defense is a no-show at trial, the trial will likely have to be postponed.

A lengthy civil trial can also bog down a docket, Graves said. He has tried three of the longest cases in Hinds County - trials which lasted 10, eight and seven weeks.

Graves said, "I can't set arbitrary limits on how long a trial is going to last."

During trial, "I am literally in the courtroom every day from 9 to 5 or 5:30," Graves said. " If I have a really long trial, sometimes I will take Fridays and hear motions in other cases. But the more interruptions you build into a trial, the longer you extend the time jurors have to spend on a jury. You are taking regular people out of their daily lives. They want to get that over with as expeditiously as they can, too."

Graves said civil cases typically take longer to resolve than criminal cases.

"A drug case is a drug case is a drug case," Graves said. "Even if a car wreck is a car wreck, the injuries are different. The doctors render different treatment."

"Life and liberty are at stake in a criminal case. There ought to be a more expeditious resolution of cases where somebody's life or liberty is involved," Graves said. "Obviously civil litigants want their cases disposed of in a timely fashion. But I think everyone would recognize that if you have to sacrifice one over the other, criminal cases would take precedence over the civil docket. That's not to say you don't want to move the civil docket along."

"In most of your complex civil cases and even some not so complex, the lawyers agree that they cannot complete discovery within 90 days," Graves said.

One item on his civil docket has 4,000 plaintiffs seeking damages as a result of a railroad tank car explosion that discharged hazardous materials. Graves consolidated the cases and is trying the damage claims in groups of 20 plaintiffs. Mississippi has no class-action statute.

Graves said, "Do time standards apply? Do you look at that case as one case, or 4,000 separate cases? ....We are trying them in groups of 20. There are 4,000 of them. You do the math."

Graves said, "Whether or not the Supreme Court adopts time standards, I think any diligent judge has to be concerned about moving cases efficiently and expeditiously through the system. It's that old 'Justice delayed is justice denied.' I don't think there is any judge who has an interest in unduly delaying cases."

Graves said, "When you talk about rules and standards, you have to superimpose that over people's rights to fair trials and due process. You can't say, 'I've got to have this completed within the next 90 days.' All I'm saying is time standards have got to be sensitive to all the things trial judges face every day that you can't write up a nice little formula for."

Graves said, "Time standards could be a very good thing. But you need to get a lot of input and feedback from the bench and bar regarding the imposition of those time standards. They need to be able to take into account all of the different things that can occur. One of the reasons this job is so interesting is that from day to day, you never know what is going to happen."

Graves said, "My feelings are, I am certainly not opposed to setting some reasonable limits with regard to the disposition of cases. However, I think those limits, those parameters ought to be set after a lot of input and information from both the bench and bar."

Pittman said, "I'm very satisfied with where we are on time standards. We have active, ongoing discussion and that's what we need to get at the best solution."

A copy of the proposed time standards is available on the Supreme Court web site, courts.ms.gov, under the June 14 decisions list. For more information, call court public information officer Beverly Pettigrew Kraft at 601-354-7452, or e-mail bkraft@courts.ms.gov.

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