Sunday, November 25, 2007

The Business of District Courts

Judge D. Brock Hornby (D. Me.) wrote an interesting piece reflecting on what it is that federal district courts do: D. Brock Hornby, The Business of the U.S. District Courts, 10 Green Bag 2d 453, Westlaw (2007).

Beginning with the management approach of Peter Drucker, Judge Hornby asks what the courts' "customers" -- their outside constituents (lawyers, litigants, the public, Congress) -- value.

The obvious function, holding trials, is becoming a smaller and smaller part of a district judge's job. Civil filings are up, but civil trials are down. Criminal prosecutions remain high, but criminal trials are also down.

Dramatists enjoy trials. District judges enjoy trials. Some lawyers enjoy trials. Except as bystanders, ordinary people and businesses don't enjoy trials, because of the unacceptable risk and expense.

In the twenty-first century, the federal district courts' primary roles in civil cases have become law exposition, fact sorting, and case management -- office tasks -- not umpiring trials. In criminal cases, the judges' work remains courtroom-centered but, instead of trials, it has become law elaboration and fact finding at sentencing, supervising federal offenders after prison, and safeguarding the integrity of a criminal process that sends defendants to prison without trial. In 2007, that is the federal district courts' business. Trials as we have known them, and unfettered sentencing discretion, are not coming back.
Id. at 468.

Courtroom photo: U.S. District Court for the District of Maine.

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