July 01, 2014

The ABA Judicial Division Turns 100: The Management of Courts and Cases

By Peter M. Koelling

After World War II, the concepts that Arthur Vanderbilt had championed as ABA president slowly began to take hold. As chief justice of New Jersey beginning in 1948, he was able to start to implement many of these new ideas about how the courts should be run at the state level. It was not surprising that New Jersey was the first state to have a state court administrator. These ideas flourished elsewhere. The first trial court administrator was hired in 1950, the number of states using such administrators reached 35 in 1969, and, by 1977, an estimated 420 trial court administrators were actively working in the field.

As their numbers grew, judges started to think about ways to manage their courts and their cases. In the ’60s, the Judicial Division began to focus on the issue of caseflow management and having the court be responsible for cases rather than waiting for the parties to take action. In 1973, Maureen Solomon began to develop these ideas and wrote Caseflow Management in the Trial Court, which was published by the ABA. Following its publication, a number of studies were undertaken investigating the pace of litigation and the cause of delay. These studies influenced Solomon, who, along with Doug Somerlot, revised and refined their ideas about caseflow management.

In 1987, the ABA published Solomon and Somerlot’s new monograph, Caseflow Management in the Trial Court: Now and for the Future. This work identified seven fundamental elements of managing caseflow that are still considered the cornerstones of the process. First was judicial leadership and commitment. Without judges taking the lead, caseflow management cannot happen. As judges take some of the control of cases away from lawyers, resistance is certain, so judges need to be committed to the change. The second element was consultation with the bar. Attorneys had to understand the changes that were taking place and the need for changes, along with an opportunity to offer their ideas for improvement. Third was court supervision of case progress. Judges would begin asking why cases were not making progress and encourage the partners to move to resolution. Fourth was standards and goals. If the court’s docket was to be managed, there had to be targets and internal milestones for cases. The fifth was a monitoring and information system. Although ubiquitous today, this concept was new in the ’80s. A judge who wanted to understand the court’s docket needed to have the information and a way to analyze that information. Sixth was trial date credibility and seventh was its corollary, court control of continuances. These elements are still the hallmarks of good caseflow management. Cases are settled or tried by lawyers who are prepared. The court encourages that preparation by creating a culture where hearings and trials happen when they are set.

The Judicial Division and the ABA have shown their leadership and strength in the development of standards and goals. They used the advantage of being a national organization that could call on the experience of judges and lawyers in many different systems. They were able to use those innovations and practices that were working the best. The first attempt at creating standards for courts were brought before the ABA House of Delegates and approved in 1974. In the late ’80s, the Judicial Division undertook a wholesale revision of these standards. This comprehensive overhaul was focused on how the judicial branch could effectively and efficiently handle its own operations and the cases that come before it. The judicial branch should clearly have both the authority and the accountability for managing the affairs of the judicial branch. Standards Relating to Court Organizations was published by the Judicial Division in 1990. This publication was soon followed by Standards Relating to Trial Courts in 1992 and those for Appellate Courts in 1994. Standards are still the policy of the ABA today and are the basis on which we promote the professional management of court systems.

The other critical area in which the Judicial Division has continued guiding courts is the establishment of time standards. The ABA developed its first time standards in 1976, amending them in 1984 and again in 1992. Later the Conference of State Court Administrators and the Conference of Chief Justices each established its own. Today, however, with the leadership of the Judicial Division, all of the entities have come together to establish a single set of time standards for all types of cases. The Judicial Division has taken the lead in the development and improvement of the judicial branch on these issues and many more. It has led in its first 100 years and will continue to do so in its next century.