Case Under Submission?
For several months this column has focused on various causes of ineffectiveness of the legal system. Most recently we dealt with the extreme ineffectiveness and waste of time that is involved with grand juries in the State of Alabama. Before that we had focused on ineffectiveness that results from the economics of law practice. This column will continue the focus on reasons for ineffectiveness in the legal system. The judicial system itself has certain built in problems.
Trial court judges are overloaded with responsibilities and overworked. Caseloads are large. The effectiveness of a trial judge depends on the motivation of the particular judge. The ultimate responsibility for decision making rests with the trial court judge in most instances. There is little supervision of the day to day operations of a trial court judge.
The appeal system, which will be the subject of a future column, certainly does not provide supervision. At best, if the trial court judge makes a mistake it can be reversed by an expensive appeal process after the lapse of several months. That does not constitute any real supervision. There is the judicial inquiry commission if the judge’s conduct steps considerable outside the norm. But in the normal course of events the work of the judge is unsupervised.
Ultimate responsibility must rest somewhere, and for our legal system, it rests with the trial judge. For the system to be effective judges must be totally honest, bright, and have strong work ethic.
There is an ethical provision that requires a judge to report to a bureaucracy any cases or matters that have been under submission for more than six months! Why should any matter remain under submission for over six months at any time? Based on my experience as a circuit judge, I know that often a circuit judge deals with dockets involving thirty or forty cases on any given day. If ten matters are taken under submission each working day, that would be fifty under submission in a week. That would be two hundred matters in a month. In six months it could be a whopping twelve hundred matters. Of course some of those matters would have been decided in the meantime. Nevertheless, simple mathematics tells us that if under the hypothetical that I have just posed there is an average delay of two months in making a decision on a the judge will always be required to remember the details of several hundred different matters. The human mind just doesn’t work that well.
Effectiveness requires a quicker turnaround. While we are talking about the psychology and mental aspects of retaining mentally sufficient information to make good decisions, we should remember that the largest amount of memory loss occurs on the first night’s sleep after exposure to pending matters. Recall does not improve with the passage of time for a judge any more than it does with anyone else. If notes become cold, the facts are difficult to recover, and who can keep up with several hundred sets of notes?
The hope of lawyers and litigants that the judge is spending a great deal of time to meditate on a decision in their case is often without any real basis in fact. Congestion of the docket brings about delay and delay does not make the decision making process any more effective or efficient. First impressions are often the best impressions and if a judge is reasonably convinced after hearing arguments, then there should be little delay in making the decision. A quick turnaround on the decision making process will improve the effectiveness of decision making in most instances. Needless to say, there are, from time to time, complicated legal issues that require study and careful analysis and the judge needs to identify those cases and spend the required amount of time engaged in the study. However, the matter of routinely taking cases under submission and not making a decision within the most optimal period of time is very detrimental to the effectiveness of the legal system. While some systems of accountability may be helpful, the only real solution will always remain in the integrity and work ethic of the judges themselves.