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In 1992, Philadelphia was ranked second-to-last among the country’s 45 largest urban trial courts. The backlog of civil cases was 28,500 strong, and it was taking seven or more years for those cases to get before a jury. This year, a study of the civil division conducted by experts on court administration strategies deemed the court “arguably the best-managed large urban trial court operation in the nation.” “It’s like one of those NFL stories — ‘From Worst to Best,’” said Common Pleas Judge William J. Manfredi, who supervises the civil trial division of the court. The number of civil jury cases pending as of Nov. 1 was 5,635, and cases are disposed within one to two years — within the timeframe recommended by the American Bar Association. “We’ve come a long way,” said Charles A. Mapp, administrator for the civil division who joined the staff in 1995 when the court began “Day Forward,” its system of organizing and scheduling civil jury cases for trial. It wasn’t the first time that leaders of the trial division called in the National Center for State Courts, which conducted the study. Representatives of the organization, a clearinghouse for data on state courts and a consultant for court administrators, came to Philadelphia in the early 1990s to instruct judges and court employees on how to better manage things. Late last year, court leaders asked the center for a progress report. “At this point, we want to make sure the balance of resources are just right,” said Administrative Judge James J. Fitzgerald III, head of the trial division. “We wanted to analyze what tweaking can we do to make things even better.” Earlier this year, consultants from the NCSC came twice to Philadelphia and interviewed judges, court officials, staff members and lawyers in focus groups. The result was a 72-page report with 43 specific recommendations for the civil trial division’s programs. The $45,000 study was published in September and released to the public earlier this month. Fitzgerald has appointed a committee of eight judges to analyze the recommendations. The ones they choose to act on should be ready for implementation in six to eight months — just in time for spring budget negotiations for the next fiscal year, Fitzgerald said. Not all of the recommendations would require additional funding or personnel. The majority could be incorporated by adjusting personnel and policies, Fitzgerald explained. “This is an action-oriented report,” he added. Court administrators do have a set number of judges, senior judges, clerks and other staff to work with. And it’s possible they could have fewer yet — it’s unclear whether the imminent layoff of 1,300 city employees recently announced by the mayor would cut into the First Judicial District’s work force. The civil trial division today includes some 50 court administration employees, 26 judges, six senior judges and staff in the prothonotary’s office. The accolades in the NCSC’s report go to them. The consultants attributed the civil division’s backlog reduction to better coordination between the prothonotary’s office and court administrators. Also key were the programs initiated to manage cases and procedures: compulsory arbitration, the Complex Litigation Center and separate courts for discovery, motions and complex commercial litigation. Following are some of the specific recommendations included in the report: MAJOR JURY PROGRAM In light of the fact that only about 5 percent of civil jury cases are actually disposed by jury verdict (the rest are usually settled before trial or disposed of by motion), NCSC suggested finding ways to prompt earlier settlements and other non-trial dispositions for civil cases. To force attorneys to arrive better prepared to case management conferences, the court should present a specific discovery plan at the conference that would specify, for example, to whom interrogatories will be served, who will be deposed, what documents will be requested and deadlines for each. Judges who oversee case management conferences should randomly sit in on conferences and be prepared to impose “appropriate sanctions in at least the most egregious circumstances where attorneys have appeared without being prepared” or failed to disclose basic information needed for case management orders. The court should consider whether to establish a voluntary mediation program and whether a list should be made available of designated judges willing to help settle cases and to whom attorneys could go without seeking the permission of a team leader. DISCOVERY COURT Discovery Court duty is not a favorite task among civil division judges. The problem is the number of “inconsequential motions filed and heard,” leaving less time for the few motions that actually raise a complex legal issue. Judges view discovery motion practice as a “game by attorneys either to delay providing information until the last minute to place the opponent at a tactical disadvantage, or to attempt, collusively, to wrest control of the pace of the litigation from the court.” Attorneys were concerned about instances in which a judge “sua sponte has precluded presentation of witnesses who were not named by the discovery deadline.” To improve the exchange of required information in civil cases, the NCSC suggested the bar review and update the current standard interrogatories and the court require use of the updated interrogatories in arbitration cases and most major jury cases. MOTIONS COURT The “messy” program that hears and decides some of the 50,000 motions filed each year in the Common Pleas Court could benefit from additional staff for processing motions, petitions and appeals, according to the report. The NCSC recommended that court administrators set up a separate program for the processing and hearing of all civil appeals, including those from arbitration, Municipal Court and statutory appeals, to cut down on Motion Court’s responsibilities. To help reduce the volume of discovery-related litigation, the court should require a “notice of opposition” to be filed the day before a discovery motion is set for hearing if a party intends to contest the motion. If no notice is filed, it’s presumed uncontested and the court handles it more expeditiously. COMPLEX LITIGATION CENTER Fourteen mass tort programs are active in the Complex Litigation Center, which was established in 1992 and has “justifiably garnered national attention for its ability to fairly and quickly dispose of large numbers of mass tort cases.” The center also handles appeals from arbitration and the 30 class actions filed each year. According to the report, lawyers and judges worry that the CLC’s popularity may overwhelm the center unless it receives additional judicial and staff resources. “One suggested remedy is for the CLC to handle the pretrial portions of mass tort cases, but send the case back to the situs of the alleged tort when it is ready for trial,” the report states. “This would not only spread the burden of trying cases but also lessen the number of choice-of-law questions the court must consider.” Another suggestion was for judges to be stricter when determining whether Philadelphia is “truly the most convenient and appropriate forum.” The National Center for State Courts’ report is available on the First Judicial District’s Web site, courts.phila.gov.

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