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The Reengineering of State Court Operations

By Lindsay M. Sestile, Litigation News Associate Editor – August 18, 2010

Recognizing that state courts cannot continue to conduct business as usual in the current economic climate, the National Center for State Courts recently released its Future Trends in State Courts 2010 [PDF] report, concentrating on how state courts can “reengineer” their operations to improve public service at a lower cost over the long term.

According to the NCSC report, these changes are being driven by three distinct trends: the “baby-boom tidal wave,” the “state court response to periodic budget crises,” and “social changes driven by technology.”

The report outlines concerns that state courts, which traditionally have dealt with economic downturns through lay-offs and limited court hours for the public, will have to adopt more aggressive measures to guarantee long-term viability.

Quick and Responsive State Courts
The NCSC report proposes that state courts focus on eliminating functions “better done by other government agencies” and “triage incoming cases” to “match the right issues with the right adjudicatory processes,” including courthouse alternative dispute resolution programs or administrative processes. The report highlights concerns that courts may lose additional funding and resources if budget conscious litigants opt out of the court system entirely in favor of faster resolution through private ADR.

It is “exciting to see the courts explore a range of innovations that will give faster and more efficient options for resolving disputes through the use of the courts,” says Barbara J. Dawson, former cochair of the ABA Section of Litigation’s Commercial and Business Litigation Committee.

Dawson notes that the Arizona state court system offers a one-day jury trial option to parties. Given the time restrictions, each side is necessarily forced to pare down their case to the essentials.

“This cost-efficient option reflects that cases are not one size fits all and should not be managed with a one-size-fits-all approach,” opines Dawson. Also, she continues, it “allows people to feel like they have been heard and have received their day in court even where their budgets might prohibit a longer, more traditional process.”

Improved Case Management Systems
Several states, including Minnesota, Missouri, Utah, and Vermont, are working in conjunction with the NCSC or independently to address these long-term budgetary and operational issues.

According to the report, many state courts have implemented, or are investigating, improved case management systems to measure caseload “metrics,” empirical performance evaluations of the judiciary, and non-traditional case adjudication methods. The NCSC report suggests specific measures such as computerized “performance dashboards” for judges to allow them to analyze “metrics” and “business intelligence” such as “case clearance rates.”

Paul E. Lehner, Chicago, cochair of the Section’s Solo and Small Firms Committee, has already seen an increasing pressure on judges to manage their caseloads and recognizes that judges are becoming more sensitive to their statistics. “There is always the risk that sensitivity to managing a docket will trump sensitivity to the characteristics of a particular case,” he says, “but that risk decreases if we have a good, well-paid, and committed judiciary.”

What Does Increased Case Management Mean for Litigators?
“Coming from a small firm background, I welcome measures that will help deter overlawyering and burying the other side with paper and burdensome discovery requests,” says Lehner. “A system that imposes restrictions and provides infrastructure is a system that helps good lawyers win meritorious cases,” he says.

Dawson echoes this sentiment. “More organization around the framework of litigation stands only to benefit the parties who use the process appropriately,” she says.

Speaking of the measures state courts are implementing to overhaul their operations, Lehner notes, “I would trade all the innovations in the world for a really good judge.”

Keywords: Litigation, state court operations, NCSC report, future trends in state courts

  • September 1, 2010 – If all we measure is clearance rates that is the only thing we will improve. Mere reliance on a "good, well-paid, and committed judiciary" (even assuming we have such) will not do the job. Outcomes other than clearance must be measured. If the sentenced offenders keep re-appearing "clearing" their cases is worse than meaningless. Judges are all about accountability for everyone other than themselves. As judges we need to take responsiblity for the results of our decisions, which we can do only if we measure and evaluate how our work effects those we judge.


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