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Robert H. Benfield Jr. had 25 hours to try his federal case. Edward D. Buckley III had 20 hours. U.S. District Judge Thomas W. Thrash Jr. presided over both cases — not only as a judge but also as the official timekeeper. The attorneys, who won significant judgments in civil jury trials before Thrash this year, say the judge imposed strict time limits on all parties at pre-trial conferences. Whenever an attorney engaged in either direct or cross-examination before the jury, the clock would run. And the judge kept time. “He’s got a clock on the wall,” Buckley says. “He was faithful in looking at the clock at the beginning of testimony and at the end of testimony when each lawyer stepped up to the podium. … When I concluded my direct or cross, he’d look at the clock and mark down the time.” Benfield, who recently won a $1.5 million verdict in a personal injury suit against Ingles Markets of Asheville, N.C., Williams v. Ingles, No. 1:98-cv-2423 (N.D. Ga. Oct. 27, 2000), says that at one point during the trial, he feared he was running short of time. He appealed to Thrash for more. The judge, Benfield says, said no. It was the first time that either Buckley or Benfield ever tried a case where the length of the trial was absolute. Thrash doesn’t always keep time so rigidly. Patrick Crosby, a spokesman for Richard H. Deane Jr., U.S. Attorney for Georgia’s Northern District, says Deane’s staff cannot recall a criminal trial where Thrash imposed strict time limits on prosecutors or defense attorneys. Nor did the judge place any restrictions on attorneys who challenged Fulton County’s affirmative action program, which Thrash declared unconstitutional last year. Webster v. Fulton County, No. 1:96-cv-2399 (N.D. Ga., Feb. 24, 2000) “He didn’t put a time limit on it,” says Atlanta attorney Penn Payne, who, with partner Dorothy Y. Kirkley, defended Fulton County. “There was never any mention of that.” Thrash declined to be interviewed about the practice. His administrative assistant, Lynn Huff, says the judge has a policy of not speaking to the media. But attorneys who have tried cases before Thrash say the time limits are a form of case management that forced them to make their presentations more organized, focused and concise. “I don’t know how long he’s been doing it,” says Benfield. “But he’s been doing it for a while. … At the first pre-trial conference, he announced that’s how we would be doing it. The way it works is that your time on direct or on cross counts against you. Their [opposing counsel's] time on direct or cross counts against them. He keeps the time. You can watch as you finish a direct, you will see him looking at the time, and you will know he has just punched the chess clock. It’s like ‘American Gladiators.’ “ Benfield says that he and opposing counsel originally told Thrash they would need three-and-a-half weeks to try the case. Thrash gave them three. “It forced us to streamline the case and focus on the things that would be most critical for the jury,” he says. He finished with five minutes left. The defendants, on the other hand, “had miles and miles of time left over,” Benfield says. “But it was the plaintiffs who were fast running out of road.” Buckley, who won a $2.9 million verdict against Fulton County last May for discriminating against three white employees, ( Lambert v. Fulton County, No. 1:97-cv-1243, May 5, 2000), says he didn’t like the idea of such rigid time constrictions on his case. “But I warmed to the idea as I went along.” Says Buckley of the judge, “He gave each side 20 hours of time to use as they saw fit, either in presentation of their case or in cross-examination of the other side’s witnesses. And so it caused us to look at our order of proof and to impose some discipline on ourselves.” Thrash’s time limits were reasonable, Buckley says. “I can see where if a judge was ungenerous with the time and there were a lot of witnesses, where it would create serious problems in putting up a case. There was not a problem in this case.” Thrash isn’t the only judge to manage his cases so diligently. Atlanta attorney William Usher Norwood III of Pope, McGlamry, Kilpatrick & Morrison, says, “I’ve had it happen to me. I think it’s relatively common.” Norwood says he has tried cases where time limits were imposed before U.S. District Judge Avant B. Edenfield in Georgia’s Southern District, U.S. District Judge Myron Thompson in Alabama, and a Superior Court judge in South Georgia. Edenfield, he says, imposed a time limit on each witness. As time ran out, “Sometimes he would simply interrupt and say, ‘You’ve got another 15 minutes. Make your point,’ ” the attorney recalls. Norwood says that in his first civil trial before Thrash against Ford Motor Co. in September, Mason v. Ford Motor Co., No.1:99-cv-459 (N.D. Ga., Sept. 7, 2000), the judge didn’t impose rigid time limits. Norwood won a $9 million judgment in the case. But the judge did warn attorneys that he didn’t expect any cross-examination to take much longer than the direct examination that preceded it, the attorney says. “He gave us three weeks and said we ought to be able to try the case in that time. And then he would check with us every day. He did say that if we didn’t finish within the three-week time frame he might have to do something else. … But there was never any sort of threat.” Thrash also runs a very “by-the-clock court,” Norwood says. “We started at 9 a.m. every morning, and we closed between 5 p.m. and 5:30 p.m. every afternoon. He took a break exactly at 11 a.m. and exactly at 3 p.m. We broke for lunch at 12:30 p.m. — regardless of where we were.” Thrash has a reason for his punctuality, Norwood says. He informed counsel for both sides, “I’m going to take my break at 11 a.m. no matter where we are. That way nobody can accuse me of doing anything to favor the flow of evidence. You gentlemen know in advance.” Knowing the time limits and court breaks in advance “were really kind of helpful for the trial,” Norwood says. “If he gives me two weeks and says I’ve got this many hours to do it, I think it helps me organize. … I believe the quicker you get something through, the better a jury’s going to like it.”

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