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Not long ago, the expression “see you in court” was a hollow threat, especially for lawyers in Connecticut’s urban centers. Two years ago, a backlog of 24,000 pending civil cases created a delay of three to four years between filing and actual trial. The backlog has been creeping ever upwards since the mid-1980s. Now, due to more judges, bigger budgets and new ideas, the seemingly irreversible trend is heading back down, and the backlog is near 20,000. The solution has been to push more cases toward the imminent reality of trial, says William F. Gallagher, immediate past president of the Connecticut Bar Association. “Anything that exposes cases to trial is good. The story is, you can have a hundred pretrials, but if there isn’t exposure to [imminent] trial after the pretrial, the pretrials frequently are not productive,” he said. Gallagher, a top trial and appellate lawyer, is a member of a group of key judges and lawyers on the Civil Commission, a group that has been meeting since last July to brainstorm short- and long-term solutions to the civil trial backlog. At the behest of Supreme Court Chief Justice Francis M. McDonald, Jr., the committee of leaders in the plaintiffs’ and defense bar, as well as top administrative judges, has been considering innovative ways to blast apart the civil logjam. While the commission’s work is still preliminary, one solution under consideration is to force litigants who wish to appeal from a mediated matter involving less than $50,000 to accept trial before a referee, whether or not both sides consent. A bill to mandate that solution failed to pass in last year’s legislative session. However, it’s a strategy unappealing to many lawyers, who object to having trials before referees for a variety of reasons, said Gallagher, of New Haven’s Gallagher & Calistro. One fear is that referees, who are judges older than the mandatory retirement age of 70, may be past their prime. The Civil Commission, spearheaded by Joseph P. Flynn, deputy chief court administrator for civil and family matters, is mulling methods to counter that problem. In California, for example, litigants get a peremptory strike of the assigned referee, which makes the option less rigid. Edward M. Sheehy, of Bridgeport’s Williams, Cooney & Sheehy, is a defense lawyer on the Civil Commission. He said that, taking a long-range view, referees are likely to become an increasingly important resource in reducing the wait for a court date. “Trials hanging around for six or seven years are not doing anyone any good,” he says. Sheehy noted that the number of referees available to handle civil cases will predictably increase, as judges reach the mandatory retirement age of 70, and opt to serve as referees. In addition, life expectancies are increasing for men and women. Furthermore, more women, who generally live longer than men, are becoming judges. It’s also likely that there will be an increasing proportion of fit, over-70 jurists available to pare down court overloads, he said. SWORD OF DAMOCLES Robert C. Leuba, who last week stepped down as chief court administrator, says the imminence of a hard-and-fast trial date clearly prompts cases to settle. “Ninety-six percent of all civil cases settle in one of three stages. First, the parties settle between themselves. Second, they settle due to pretrial mediation. And third, when they’re scheduled for trial, a lot of matters are resolved on the courthouse steps.” But without a firm date, lawyers have no incentive to settle, and the backlog swells, Leuba said. Making the state’s courts more productive started with small, low-tech improvements, he said. One initial step was to have a facilities management team analyze the working conditions in each of the state’s courthouses. “Sometimes it was nothing more than a coat of paint or a new carpet,” said Leuba, noting that judges, like other people, don’t work as well in depressing surroundings. On the high-tech side, Leuba has made sure all judges have laptop computers and Connecticut caselaw in CD-ROM format, which is how the “electronic benchbook” is stored. At home or on the bench, jurists now have a substantial law library at their fingertips. Most judges have e-mail, and all have access to computers with modems. Thus, without a trip to the library, a judge can check to see that all cited legal precedents are still good law by using the standard Shepard’s cross-reference system. CIVIL BLITZ Chief Justice McDonald’s focus on wrapping up high-profile murder cases has decreased the state’s criminal docket, which is always under additional pressure due to speedy trial requirements. Starting in January, a group of judges that has been trying criminal cases will pitch in for a civil blitz, aimed at eliminating at least 100 cases during that month. They will be assigned blocks of four cases at a time to try or to settle. One impediment in Connecticut’s civil system, Leuba says, is that cases are not assigned to a single judge from start to finish. Different judges hear successive motions on a single case, requiring each successive judge to master the file anew. The complex-litigation docket, designed by former Chief Court Administrator Aaron Ment, changes that for cases that qualify for that venue. Each judge signs on for at least three years, and cases certified as complex go to one judge only. Leuba said this system prevents lawyers from rearguing settled issues in the hopes that the new judge won’t notice. The complex-litigation docket keeps cases that need eight weeks to try from bouncing around in the system and coming before a long series of judges. This gives the judges working on the regular docket more time to focus on cases that only need three to five days to try — and are more likely to start and finish under one judge. “There’s such a thing as too many cooks,” says Leuba.

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