Delaware works to improve its problem-solving courts

Many states have established “problem-solving courts” over the last two decades.  These are specialized courts whose mission goes beyond the standard determination of guilt  and punishment, and instead seeks to address the causes underlying problematic behaviors.  Across the country, problem-solving courts have been established to deal with (among other things) drug offenses, mental health issues, sex offenses, truancy, and gun violence.

The State of Delaware has recently undertaken its first internal evaluation of its problem-solving courts, and is now looking to streamline and consolidate some of their work.  In particular, the public report describing the evaluation recommends “a unified statewide treatment court.”  Unifying the state’s problem-solving courts, the report suggested, would also allow the judiciary and court administrators to address treatment and training issues more efficiently.

As the state courts continues to expand their reach beyond a traditional, arms-length adjudicative role, these types of analyses will be all the more important.  Delaware is said to be working with the National Center for State Courts and the National Association of Drug Court Professionals on this project, and hopefully the lessons gleaned from the project will work their way to other state court systems as well.

New Chicago judge seeks to choose his own path

Like many organizations, court systems have deliberate processes for acculturating and training new members — a process sometimes referred to as “socialization.”  Forms of court socialization include formal processes like “baby judge” schools to provide training on opinion writing and docket management, as well as informal processes of acclimating new judges to the ins and outs of their jobs.

In Cook County, Illinois, part of the socialization and acclimation process involves assigning new judges to traffic court.  But Judge Richard Cooke, a former private practitioner who won an unopposed judicial election last November, rejected his traffic court assignment and apparently never reported for duty.  Judge Cooke claims a conflict of interest, alleging that he has financial stake in a car wash that cleans city-owned vehicles.  Other are not buying it:

Critics say the tempest is an illustration of all that’s wrong with selecting judges in Cook County — where cash and political connections at times carry more weight than temperament and ability. Daley Center judges say traffic court is the best place for a new judge to learn how to manage a courtroom, master a new area of law and do their job in a setting where the possible damage they can inflict is relatively minimal.

Former top federal prosecutor Carrie Hamilton, who helped prosecute ex-governor Rod Blagojevich, and former Winston & Strawn partner Raymond Mitchell both spent time in traffic court before moving into other assignments.

The court administration initially responded by assigning Judge Cooke only to conduct marriage ceremonies.  With the outcry continuing, however, this week the circuit court’s executive committee sent the issue to the state Judicial Inquiry Board.  This is the first step in a possible disciplinary action against Judge Cooke.  We will follow the story as it develops.

Brooklyn court restructures approach to criminal docket

This is an interesting piece on recent administrative changes made at the Criminal Term of the Brooklyn Supreme Court to combat backlog and process cases more efficiently.  Efficiency in case processing is often overemphasized, and can be stressed to the detriment of other important factors of court productivity.  But it is still a very visible part of court operations, and accordingly very important.  Courts should be applauded for seeking out internal ways to handle their duties efficiently.

Iowa considers closing courthouses

Facing a budget crunch, both court administrators and state legislators in Iowa are admitting the possibility that they might close or consolidate courthouses in the future, leaving some of Iowa’s counties without any courthouse at all.  Technological advances might make some closings more palatable, as materials can be filed and hearings conducted electronically.

There is no plan in the works to consolidate court services, said State Court Administrator David Boyd, who is set to retire in September after four decades of working for Iowa’s court system. And there are state laws barring certain moves, such as creating regional litigation centers or moving clerk offices out of county seats.

But Boyd admits there may come a time when offering court services in all 99 counties could be reconsidered.

“I really do hope at some point we are in fact considered to be a separate and equal branch of government and properly funded,” he said. “That’s not to say that we have to continue to do things in a particular way just because we’ve always done it that way.”

 

 

Minnesota courts continue innovations regarding self-represented litigants

State courts have increasingly tried to keep up with the growth of self-represented litigants. Concrete numbers are elusive, in part due to varying definitions of “self-represented.”* But studies undertaken by individual states clearly demonstrate the burgeoning self-represented population in probate, domestic violence, family law, and even run-of-the-mill civil cases. Federal courts, too, report that almost 86,000 civil cases were filed by a self-represented plaintiff in Fiscal Year 2016 (most of them prisoner petitions).

This interesting article discusses the efforts of the Minnesota state courts to address the growing numbers of self-represented parties:

It’s not uncommon for pro se litigants to arrive at court with paperwork that’s either the wrong form or filled out incorrectly. These kinds of mistakes can gum up the system, court officials say. Now judges can sometimes send people straight from the courtroom to a self-help center.

“It helps people feel like they’ve been heard,” District Judge Bethany Fountain Lindberg said. “It also eliminates unnecessary hearings.”

While the number of court cases overall in Minnesota has decreased since 2010, the percentage of litigants proceeding without a lawyer remains high. Excluding traffic and parking cases, nearly 80 percent of cases heard in Minnesota district courts last year involved a pro se litigant at some point, state data show.

The reason is often financial, court officials say. The rise of the do-it-yourself web culture may also be behind the trend.

“It used to be that everyone had attorneys,” said Mike Moriarity, 10th Judicial District administrator. “Now there’s a spirit that people want to try doing it themselves.

* The Court Statistics Project, maintained by the National Center for State Courts, tracks self-represented litigation through a common definition, but the numbers are not available for all states.

Delaware courts embracing private sector management techniques

Buried in this story about the University of Delaware’s partnership with the state court system to create a fellows program for graduate students is a most interesting point:

In 2014, the judicial branch entered a 10-year partnership with the Alfred Lerner College of Business and Economics to improve court operations using private-sector techniques.

As part of the effort, many in the courts were trained in Lean Six Sigma, a methodology focused on removing waste from the processes. The courts said this helped save the judicial branch and partner agencies more than 4,250 staff hours.

Courts have been looking to private sector organizations for management techniques for  a century, when Chief Justice Taft began infusing the federal courts with “executive principle.” But until this story broke, I was admittedly unaware that Six Sigma techniques were being applied directly in state court systems.

More background on the court-university partnership is here.

The numbers supporting the push for more federal judges

On Tuesday, the Judicial Conference of the United States agreed to recommend to Congress to create 57 new federal judgeships — 5 in the circuit courts and 52 in the district courts.  The Conference further recommended that eight temporary or part-time district judgeships be converted to permanent status.

In its press release, the Conference emphasized the growth of the federal courts’ overall docket since 1990, when the last comprehensive judgeship bill was enacted.  In that quarter-century plus, district court filings have grown 38 percent (with nearly equal growth in criminal and civil filings), and appellate courts have grown by 40 percent.

But the recommendations are more narrowly tailored than a simply 40 percent boost in judges nationwide.  Only one of the thirteen appellate courts (the Ninth) is a suggested recipient of more judges, and only 27 of the 94 district courts are deemed to need new judgeships.

An examination of some of these targeted districts, and why it matters, after the jump.

Continue reading “The numbers supporting the push for more federal judges”

AO releases 2016 Annual Report and Statistics

The Administrative Office of the U.S. Courts has published its 2016 Annual Report and statistical tables. Although many of the most interesting tables are not publicly released, those that are released provide a wealth of information on federal court dockets and operations. I will likely have more to say about the 2016 statistics in the coming days, once I have a chance to go through the tables a bit.

Neil Gorsuch and judicial administration

The BNA reports here that if he is confirmed to the Supreme Court, Judge Neil Gorsuch would lose his position as Chair of the federal Advisory Committee on Appellate Rules, a role he has occupied since last October.  This is only a minor administrative inconvenience for the federal court system; Chief Justice Roberts no doubt has already considered how to replace Judge Gorsuch on that committee. But the article does provide an important reminder about the considerable experience Judge Gorsuch brings to judicial administration, and lets us consider why such experience matters. Continue reading “Neil Gorsuch and judicial administration”