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During 2010, Hennepin County District Court will roll out a criminal calendaring pilot in which, by September 2010, all
Before describing the 2010 calendaring pilot in more detail, it will be helpful to define various calendaring systems and give a brief history of how those systems have been used in
Master Calendar System
In a master calendar system, judges are assigned to preside over a particular stage of a case instead of all stages of the same case. For example, one judge will be assigned to a misdemeanor arraignment calendar for a set period of time. Cases on that calendar which are not resolved will be put on a pretrial conference calendar, where a second judge will be assigned. Cases on the pretrial calendar which are not resolved will either get continued to another pretrial calendar, where yet another judge is assigned, or go to a master trial calendar, where a pool of judges will be waiting to be assigned a trial from that calendar.
The strength of a master calendar system lies in its ability to get trial-ready cases to trial on a certain date. With a pool of judges available for trial each day, the master calendar system is designed to work much like an airline or post office service counter where one line of customers waits for one of several service counter workers to become available. This system can be more efficient than a block system, where, to follow the analogy, cases must wait in separate lines, one line for each judge.
Another strength in the master calendar system lies in its flexibility. If a judge becomes unable to preside over a previously assigned calendar, a central administrator can go to the pool of trial-ready judges to replace the unavailable judge. However, this flexibility can undermine the system’s ability to offer trial date certainty if the pool of trial-ready judges becomes too small to manage all the cases waiting in line on the master trial calendar.
The weakness of the master calendar system is that a judge may feel little motivation to take an ownership interest in a case during its early stages. A judge’s inability to resolve a case at a first appearance or pretrial conference does not result in that judge having to do more work on that case. The case will simply proceed to a later stage with a different judge. Similarly, lawyers may not be motivated to settle a case during the early stages. In particular, defense lawyers may have an incentive to continue a case to a master trial calendar in hopes of obtaining a better disposition than what was made available by the judges who presided at the earlier stages. As one court administrator said at a recent seminar, “The master calendar system will work well if the ‘Santa Claus’ judges are assigned to the early stages. If the ‘Santa Claus’ judges are in the trial calendar pool, the system won’t work.”
In a blocking system (also known as the “individual calendar system”), each case is assigned to an individual judge, who is then responsible for all subsequent stages of the case.
The strength of a blocking system is that each judge is motivated to manage the case at the early stages of the proceedings. To the extent a judge actively manages his or her cases during the early stages, cases that will not be tried should settle earlier and cases that go to trial should be tried by better prepared lawyers (and judges). Delays attributable to judge shopping are eliminated.
A blocking system has its weaknesses. Individual judges have varying case management abilities. This leads to differences among judges in case disposition times. With judges responsible for only their block of cases, there could be little motivation among judges to help each other with day to day calendar problems. A blocking system can also create more scheduling problems for lawyers who have pretrial proceedings scheduled before different judges at the same time rather than being heard on one pretrial calendar. Finally, compared to a master calendar system, blocking may require more work for each judge’s staff because each judge’s staff, rather than a central administrator, may be responsible for managing the judge’s calendar.
Team Calendar System
A team calendaring system combines features of the master calendar and blocking systems. Judges are divided into teams, with each team hearing the same types of cases. A team may operate as a small master calendar system, with judges having the best settlement skills presiding over the early stages of the cases. A team may also operate as a blocking system, with each case blocked to a judge within the team, but with the understanding that team members will assist each other when a judge’s calendar, including a trial calendar, is overscheduled.
A team calendar system allows for the accountability and sense of ownership of cases associated with a blocking system while maintaining at least some of the flexibility of a master calendar system. The success of a team system will largely depend on the team members’ efforts to work together to manage their calendars and to adopt and maintain common practices and procedures.
In late 1998, there was an inordinate amount of felony cases (up to 700) pending trial on the master trial calendar. The Hennepin County Board and the bench were receiving complaints about the backlog from both prosecutors and defense lawyers. The board and the bench were also concerned about overcrowding in the jail caused by the backlog of felony cases.
In early 1999, the
The court uses a “master calendar” assignment system for criminal cases. The result of this type of organization is that at least three or more judges may preside over parts of a case before it is disposed. There is no evident coordination among judges based on the age of cases in the system. Because this assignment system prevents continuous control of cases, judges do not feel empowered to encourage early dispositions. The master trial calendar also facilitates forum shopping and provides a disincentive to litigants to reach agreements early in the process.1
Among the NCSC recommendations was that felony cases be blocked to individual judges after the first court appearance. Noting that blocking encourages judges to take ownership of cases at the early stages, the authors of the report said, “Taking ownership allows a judge to control all progress in the ‘owned cases’ from inception to disposition, promoting early dispositions whenever possible. Judicial work that produces early dispositions is rewarded by moving a smaller calendar and speedier trials.”2 In addition to its blocking recommendation for felonies, the authors recommended that judges with blocks of criminal cases work in teams so that judges on a team can back up other judges on the team whose calendars become overcrowded.3
Shortly after the NCSC report issued, the
In 2005, a
The second performance measurement involved the high number of cases reaching the master trial calendar. In 2004, 55 percent of serious felony cases were set for trial on the master trial calendar. Only 9 percent of those cases went to a trial verdict. Lawyers were preparing for trials; and victims, police officers, and civilian witnesses were being subpoenaed for trials that were highly unlikely to occur. Many
In the fall of 2005, the bench voted to implement a “felony block” pilot, to begin in January 2006 and to be assessed in 2008. The pilot would include felony person offenses and other serious, non-property, felony offenses (e.g., felony DWI). Homicides and first-degree criminal sexual conduct cases would continue to be blocked to judges having master trial calendar assignments. Under the pilot, after a first appearance, cases would be assigned to one of six judges, each of whom would work full time on his or her block of cases. The six judges would have no other assignment, criminal or civil. In order to protect the “integrity of the pilot,” no felony block judge was to take a case assigned to another felony block judge, even if the other judge was having problems managing his or her calendar. The pilot resulted in six fewer judges being available to take trials off the master trial calendar, but the master trial calendar was left with a smaller number of cases. Only lower level felonies, gross misdemeanors, and misdemeanors would remain on the master calendar system.
In January 2006, the felony block pilot began. In January 2007, two judges were added to the pilot as were first- and second-degree controlled substance cases. Later in 2007, felony block judges began to regularly take trials from other felony block judges having an overcrowded trial calendar. Throughout the felony block pilot, judges met regularly with each other and with their justice partners (prosecutors, public defenders, and probation officers).
In the fall of 2008, the
In October 2008, the Hennepin County District Court Research Division issued a report describing various performance measurements of felony block cases. With respect to the time to disposition measurement, the report found that the felony block cases were taking as long to resolve as they were under the master calendar system. Contrary to what was predicted in the 1999 NCSC report, the time to disposition rates had not improved. However, with respect to the number of cases set for trial, and the percentage of those cases that actually went to trial, the report found a significant change. Under the master calendar system, 55 percent of the serious felony cases were set for trial, and 9 percent of those cases ended in a trial verdict. Under the felony block pilot, only 33 perecent of the cases were set for trial, and 15 percent of those cases ended in a trial verdict. As expected, under the felony block pilot, fewer cases were being set for trial, and a higher percentage of the cases set for trial were actually being tried.
For its October 2008 report, the Research Division conducted a survey among judges and lawyers who handled felony block cases during 2007. Almost all the judges (92 percent) and over half the lawyers (53 precent) believed that the blocking pilot increased accountability. No judge and only a few lawyers (7 percent) believed that the blocking pilot decreased accountability. Approximately 75 percent of the judges and lawyers believed that blocking was the best method to handle serious felony cases, and approximately 70 percent of the judges and lawyers believed that the felony block should continue.
In November 2008, a majority of the Civil/Criminal Calendaring Committee recommended that the master calendar system of managing criminal cases be eliminated and replaced with a system involving blocking and/or teaming all criminal cases.
On December 5, 2008, the
In May 2009, the Executive Committee of the
Under the pilot, 13 of the 21 civil block judges will hear all suburban criminal cases, with a four-judge team assigned to each of the three suburban divisions, and one judge assigned as backup for all three divisions. Cases will be blocked to an individual judge at either the first appearance or the first pretrial conference. Each judge will preside at suburban arraignment and pretrial conference calendars 13 weeks per year, leaving those judges with 39 weeks per year to try their civil block and suburban criminal cases.
The remaining 8 of the 21 civil block judges will hear property/drug court cases. These cases will be blocked to an individual judge at either the first appearance or the first pretrial conference. Like the suburban teams, each judge in the property/drug court team will preside at first appearance and pretrial conference calendars for 13 weeks per year, leaving those judges with 39 weeks per year to try their civil block and property/drug court cases.
Under the pilot, 18 of the 20 “criminal block” judges will be divided into three teams of six judges. Each of the 18 judges will preside at serious felony first appearance calendars three weeks per year. The cases on those calendars will be blocked to that judge at that time. “Serious felony cases” means cases that had previously been specially assigned (homicide and first-degree criminal sexual conduct cases) and cases that had previously gone to the felony block.
Each member of a criminal block team will preside over
With 12 weeks of mandatory calendars, the 18 criminal block judges will have approximately 40 weeks per year to try their serious felony and
The rotations within each team of criminal block judges could be varied to account for the inexperience of new judges. More experienced judges could do more than three felony first appearance calendars per year in exchange for a new judge doing more misdemeanor/gross misdemeanor calendars.
Judges within every team should assist each other with their calendars as needed. All teams should meet regularly with each other and with their justice partners to adopt and maintain policies and procedures within the team that will be as uniform as possible. At these meetings, the partners should be encouraged to openly and honestly discuss problems of common concern. It is hoped that the court’s justice partners will divide their staffs into teams so that each justice partner team is assigned to only one criminal block team.
On January 4, 2010, the pilot will begin and in mid 2012, the bench will decide whether to make some of or the entire pilot permanent. Performance measurements will guide the bench’s decision.
During the past 25 years, the
2 NCSC Report, p. 15-16.
3 NCSC Report, p. 17.
4 Although the Hennepin County disposition rates were well below state guidelines, they compare favorably to the disposition rates in the other Minnesota districts. The state guidelines appear to be unrealistic.