The JRC Enters The Twilight Zone

News that Superior Court Judge William Holden faces discipline by the Judicial Review Council caught me by surprise. What had the man done to warrant a public takedown? It turns out he’s guilty, if that’s the right word, of the collective sin of the judiciary -- delay. Query? Rather than singling out Judge Holden for scorn, why not sigh a giant mea culpa from the entire Judicial Branch?

Judge Holden did not write articulations of certain rulings promptly, thus delaying the appeals of a couple of defendants convicted of crimes. I am not going to defend the notion that delay is acceptable. But if there is a lawyer in the state who can say that rulings in her cases are always timely, I’ve not met her. Connecticut suffers from docket creep. The causes of this slow-motion form of justice are many.

First and foremost, our manner of selecting juries treats justice as slow-motion non-contact sport. Talking to each potential juror outside the presence of all other potential jurors in each and every case brought to trial guarantees that in the majority of cases, jury selection takes longer than the presentation of evidence. We are the only jurisdiction in the world that guarantees this as a matter of right. Last I checked, lawyers weren’t flocking to Connecticut to marvel at how well we administer justice.

I was on a panel a few years ago discussing whether to retain individual sequestered voir dire. A titan of the gold coast bar bellied up to the podium to defend the practice, asserting “real lawyers” preferred the practice. This from a personal injury king who apparently thinks three or four hours on his feet in a courtroom is a full day. Is this dawdler now coming forward to defend Judge Holden? Probably not. Effete country club types usually avoid getting their hands dirty whenever possible.

Want faster dockets? Avoid individual, sequestered voir dire.

The next cause for delay is the schizophrenic manner in which both civil and criminal cases are handled. A case is filed and dumped into the clerk’s office. Pre-trial proceedings are then rotated among the available judges on the civil side; on the criminal side, cases are “managed”, sort of, by one set of judges before assignment for trial. You can wait years to meet the judge who will try your case. The result is no coherent law of the case emerges until jury selection.  In truth, many lawyers wait until jury selection to get serious about trial preparation.

Want to move cases? Assign cases to trial judges when they are filed.

Of course, neither of these steps alone guarantee that cases will move. In our federal courts, there is both group voir dire and immediate assignment of cases to a trial judge. Yet the federal docket crawls where you might expect a leap. It is not uncommon to wait sometimes for years for a ruling. Few judges move their dockets at a speed representing a known life form. Those who do earn the gossip’s scorn.

I guess what I am saying is this: I see the dust mite in Judge Holden’s eye right now, but I do not see anyone talking about the systemic problems causing delay. Superior Court judges are supposed to issue rulings within 120 days of argument. How often does that really happen? Should we now expect a grievance of any judge who fails to meet this standard? If not, why not?

Times are tough in Connecticut as in most states. Economics have dictated a desperate sense of austerity. Folks are doing the best they can in bad circumstances. Our courts, always slow, are swamped with more than the usual chaos. This business of singling out of a judge for the quotidian sin of tardiness brings no credit to the Judicial Review Council. Rather, it unnecessarily humiliates a man who strives daily to do the right thing in a difficult job.

Is the Judicial Review Council the only administrative body in the state with too much time on its hands?

Reprinted courtesy of the Connecticut Law Tribune.



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