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Beginning next month, D.C Superior Court officials and lawyers are hoping that the time it takes to resolve a case in court will get shorter. D.C. Superior Court Chief Judge Rufus King III, whose court receives tens of thousands of cases each year, recently ordered all of the court’s divisions to develop and adopt new standards that will hold lawyers and judges to strict time requirements in getting cases through the system quicker. “The idea is that a court ought to be able to try a case a little bit sooner than the lawyers are able to try it,” says King, noting that lawyers need more adjustment than his judicial colleagues. “If you leave it to the lawyers, it is likely to take longer. A case should in fact be tried as fast as well-prepared lawyers can reasonably be asked to prepare it.” King’s administrative order, issued July 31, applies to all cases filed in all divisions on and after Oct. 1. Judges, lawyers, and division directors plan to meet regularly to make sure the standards are being met. In 2006, D.C. Superior Court had a total of 114,994 civil cases on its docket — nearly 44,000 of which were pending from the previous year, according to the court’s most recent annual report. In the Criminal Division, there were 29,203 new cases filed in 2006, most of which were misdemeanors. Meanwhile, there were 5,990 unresolved criminal cases carried over from 2005, and more than half of those were felony cases. The division disposed 25,095 of the 35,193 criminal cases that were available for disposition that year. Typically, King says, a simple civil case might take a year to 18 months to go through the entire court process before it is resolved and cleared from the court’s docket. A more complex civil case, he says, can go on for a number of years. A misdemeanor case can take around 90 days, and a felony case can go on for eight months. “These all go on longer than we wish,” King says. The goal for criminal cases is to complete 75 percent of the most serious criminal matters — known as Felony I cases — within a year from when the defendant was indicted, and 98 percent within two years. For Felony II cases, 75 percent should be completed within six months and 98 percent within 12 months. Lawyers who do not meet the deadlines will be subject to various types of sanctions, including fines. Over the years, the Superior Court has used time standards to manage caseloads, beginning in 1991, when the Civil Delay Reduction Program changed the way civil cases were processed by setting matters on individual calendars rather than a master calendar. Since 2001, the Family Court has used time standards to manage child abuse and neglect cases. The Criminal Division was also ordered to process preventive detention cases within time frames established by speedy-trial laws. Patrick Regan, a trial lawyer who was involved in the court’s development of the standards, says most lawyers want cases resolved more quickly. “I don’t mind being held to strict time requirements because I know it will ultimately serve my client’s interest, whether it means bringing the cases to a settlement or a verdict,” Regan says. “No matter how much my clients might love me or like me, they don’t want to be my client more than one day longer than they have to.” CONTINUING TIME TROUBLES? Before adopting new standards, the court conducted a 15-month study of performance measures and standards that were developed by the American Bar Association, the National Center for State Courts, the Conference of Chief Justices, and the Conference of State Court Administrators. Because the D.C. Superior Court is faced with such a high volume of cases, however, it decided to develop its own rules. After King met with presiding judges, deputy presiding judges, and senior administrators, each operating division held working groups with prosecutors, public defenders, pretrial services, and probation staff to discuss the need for time standards and to receive input. The court’s performance standards workgroup unanimously approved the plan in April. These time standards are different from the statutory time limits that are imposed on the court by U.S. or D.C. codes or case law in that statutory limits supersede the court’s own standards. King says he doesn’t expect lawyers to meet the new standards right away. He says the court’s computer information system that will measure compliance from year to year is being modified. Although the D.C. Court of Appeals has also been criticized for not resolving cases quickly, King says the Appeals Court was not involved in any of the group’s discussions. Earlier this year, the Appeals Court did issue revised rules that included timelines for filing and serving notices of appeals. In two weeks, judges in the D.C. Superior Court’s civil division will hold a meeting with lawyers to discuss the court’s new way of handling car accident cases. Some lawyers say the change could be monumental. The court will now have two tracks instead of one, and mediation and pretrial dates will be set at the time of the initial scheduling hearing. “It’s a major change. These new standards will prevent a lot of delay,” says plaintiffs attorney Wayne Cohen. Still, some attorneys say problems may still exist. Julia Leighton, general counsel for the D.C. Public Defender Service, says she would like to see efforts to create more certainty in hearings and trial dates. “Time standards must be coupled with heightened efforts to ensure that discovery is complete prior to trial and that motions have been resolved,” Leighton says. “If the court relies only on time standards and does not change the discovery and motions practice, time standards will simply lead to pressing unprepared cases to resolution, [which is] a disservice to justice.” Jonathan Smith, director of the D.C. Legal Aid Society, has been working to get the court to reform how many of its domestic violence, child custody, and housing cases are scheduled so that the burden of having to make numerous trips to court will be taken off his organization’s mostly low-income clients. “This is a good approach, but I think it’s a much smaller part of the problem when it comes to scheduling cases,” Smith says. “Sometimes my clients’ cases have to be set aside because the docket is so full.” Smith says that many times, people take unfair settlements because the court takes too long. “People would take any settlement to get out of there, get back to work or to their kids,” he says. Smith says a custody trial can be extended over several months. “While the trial is going on for months, so much is happening in the kid’s life,” Smith says. “It can be destructive.” Family Court standards for resolving custody cases more quickly, King says, are still in the development stage. Also, King says he’s tried to steer the court away from continuing a trial over a long period of time. “Calling a trial and then saying we’ll recess to next week is a very disfavored practice,” King says. “It means you have to waste time in repreparing and dealing with other complexities with schedules.” He adds, “I can’t say it will never happen, but it’s been largely eliminated, at my urging.”
Osita Iroegbu can be contacted at [email protected].

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