By FRED HORLBECK, Senior Staff Writer
Roster breakdowns, interruptions in trials and lack of uniformity in scheduling are among the problems a new Supreme Court task force will target as it looks for ways to improve docket management in the state’s trial courts.
Led by Justice Kaye G. Hearn, the task force, consisting of judges, clerks, court administrators and practitioners, will hold its first meeting Thursday, with Chief Justice Jean Hoefer Toal expected to charge the group with its mission.
That mission will entail gathering data and recommendations on how to streamline docket management as the state Judicial Department struggles with decreasing budgets and growing caseloads, Justice Hearn told Lawyers Weekly.
“The chief justice has been trying to operate the department on millions of dollars less than when she became chief justice in 2000. Meanwhile, since 2000, our caseloads have grown, not decreased. Per capita, we resolve more cases than any other state in the nation,” she said.
The state’s circuit courts have more than twice the national average of case filings and the highest number of cases per judge in any state, according to the Judicial Department. But it hasn’t added any new judicial positions in the circuit and family courts since 1997.
Further highlighting the problem was a letter in which the National Center for State Courts, a Williamsburg, Va., nonprofit court improvement organization, pointed out strengths and weaknesses in the state’s docket management system. The letter, which Chief Justice Toal received in 2009, advised formation of a task force to study the issues, Hearn said.
Later, in an address at the department’s annual conference in August, Toal said a docket management study group would consider matters such as use of judges’ time, staffing patterns and court calendaring and scheduling.
Problems in those areas have created frustrations for lawyers and their clients, Hearn said.
For example, judges in different circuits have different daily start times, with court sessions opening anywhere from 8:30 a.m. to 10 a.m.
“There’s a wide variety of times that judges start court, and it’s that kind of little inconsistency that can drive lawyers crazy if they are practicing in different circuits,” Hearn said.
In family courts, judges find their court time consumed with handling pro se litigants and balancing state agency matters, she said.
“Sometimes it is very difficult to complete a contested case, and they will start it, maybe try it for a day or two, not finish, and maybe it will be six months before they can find another day. That’s not a good model for anybody,” she said.
In addition to family courts, the task force, divided into three subcommittees, will focus on common pleas and general sessions courts, she said. Each subcommittee will study one court.
The idea is to “see if there are adjustments or wholesale changes – they might even involve rule or statutory changes – that will promote more efficiency and make it more user-friendly not just for lawyers … but for the general public,” Hearn said.
She said she expects the group to begin submitting its first recommendations to the chief justice by the beginning of the summer.