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Right now juries are being picked for a special “civil initiative” aimed at moving, by settlement or trial, 100 stubborn civil cases from the Connecticut trial court backlog in a one-month push starting Jan 3. It’s the most dramatic example of a range of improvements that in two years has cut the waiting list for a civil trial by 20 percent. Around the state, judges who normally try criminal cases have been assigned blocks of civil matters in groups of four cases. Because of criminal defendants’ speedy trial rights, criminal judges are well prepared. They have courtrooms, clerks and secretarial staff in place, says Joseph P. Flynn, assistant chief court administrator for civil and family matters. Civil judges are overseeing the time-consuming jury selection process now, and lawyers in the blitz cases have been asked to file their motions in limine — to exclude specific issues — so trials can start without delay Jan. 3. The showcase experiment has already had the preliminary effect of prompting long-standing cases to settle, Flynn said. The initiative was created under Robert C. Leuba, who, citing health concerns, resigned suddenly on Nov. 27 as chief court administrator. Case-flow coordinators around the state initially came up with 84 cases assigned to 21 judges. “Immediately, numerous cases settled,” after notices of the trial date were sent to counsel, Flynn said. Replacement cases were slotted into the lineup, organized so no lawyer would be appearing before multiple judges in the same period of time. The cases in the blitz are all personal-injury motor-vehicle negligence suits, the most common category of tort. They are grouped into four levels of complexity, Flynn explained. First are cases in which liability has been proven or admitted, so only a hearing setting the level of damages remains. Next are cases where individual plaintiffs and defendants also contest legal liability, but the plaintiff is not charged with contributory negligence. Third are cases where comparative damages must be set, and most complex are cases in which multiple defendants cross-claim against each other. To give the criminal judges another boost, each received a set of up-to-date legal reference materials in paper and on computer disc, which can be cut and pasted as needed to create civil jury instructions. BOOKS, PEOPLE, IDEAS Flynn is the most recent deputy appointed to the chief court administrator’s office, joining John J. Ronan, another Leuba appointee. The trio of Leuba, Ronan and Flynn brought a concentration of in-the-trenches trial bench experience to the top ranks of court administration. Flynn credited Leuba with recognizing the importance of secretarial staff, research clerks and up-to-date sources of the law. The addition of some 20 new trial judges, increasing the ranks to 172, also helped the courts’ efficiency, Flynn said. It also increased the need for secretarial support. “If a judge writes up a decision right away and gets it out, especially if it’s a dispositive motion, that moves the process along,” he said. Another behind-the-scenes force for dissolving stubborn cases in the pipeline has been the mediation of senior trial referees. Working in their chambers, at a modest per diem of $100, the retired judges were able to prod cases to settlement that the parties had despaired of ever seeing resolved without protracted litigation. “For many, this was more a labor of love,” Flynn said. Another device that some judges have used is the appointment of seasoned members of the bar as special masters or arbitrators to press cases toward settlement. SPEED HELPS New London, Conn., trial lawyer Robert I. Reardon Jr., a 30-year trial veteran and advocate for prompt trial dates, says the measurable improvement began at the end of former Chief Court Administrator Aaron Ment’s administration about two years ago. “In the late 1990s they made a concerted effort” to reduce the wait for a trial, he said. Although a full trial is necessary for key cases, Reardon said he approves of alternate dispute resolution techniques. Retired trial judges can sometimes settle in a one-day review, but there are advantages to hiring a private mediator “who can provide as much time as you need,” he said. Reardon also tries cases in Massachusetts and Rhode Island, and has recently settled cases that were awaiting trial dates for six years. “Connecticut lawyers don’t always realize how good we have it,” said Reardon. “Our neighboring states are a testament to how well we’re doing.”

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