With misdemeanors, "volume is the problem . . . no doubt about that," D.C. Superior Court Chief Judge Harold H. Greene, said recently. How to cope with the sheer number of misdemeanor cases that comes through the court is a continuous source of frustration - and at times dispute - among judges, prosecutors, and defense attorneys.
According to the U.S. Attorney's office, the Superior Court disposed of 8,675 misdemeanor cases from October, 1976 to September, 1977. Of those cases, 4,340 were dismissed by the government, 560 by the court, and another 2,975 were resolved with guilty pleas. The remainer of the cases - some 800 of them - went to trial.
As of last November, there were 4,288 misdemeanor cases pending before the Superior Court, which is about the average caseload.
On an annual basis, it costs about $3 million to pay for the judges, prosecutors, court-appointed lawyers, witnesses, jurors and various court personnel - from secretaries to bailiffs - who move the misdemeanor cases through the court, according to Alfred Berling, the court's fiscal officer.
Generally, about six judges are specifically assigned by Chief Judge Greene to handle the 70 or more misdemeanor cases that are scheduled for trial each day. The judges receive the cases through what is known as "misdemeanor calendar control."
The system consists of a "calendar control" judge and a person called the Assignment Commissioner."
The job of the calendar control judge is to sit in Superior Courtroom 15 and listen to defense lawyers and prosecutors tell him whether a case is ready or not to go to trial. If a case is not ready, the judge hears the excuses and then decides whether to "pass" the case until later on in the day, whether to continue it to another date, or whether to dismiss it all together.
According to the prosecutor's office, each misdemeanor case is continued at least once from its original trial date, and some are continued two, three and four times.
If a case is ready for trial, or if the defendant intends to enter a guilty plea, the calendar control judge sends the case to the Assignment Commissioner, whose job is to farm out cases to available judges.
The system rapidly gets bogged down when all the sitting judges (some of those assigned may be absent for various reasons) are occupied with other misdemeanor cases and thus not available to take an additional case.
Last summer, in a strongly worded letter to the Superior Court judges Calendar Control Committee, the U.S. Attorney's office recommended a new system whereby each judge assigned to misdemeanors would have an individual calendar, instead of picking up cases on a "judge available" basis.
In the letter, Henry F. Greene, chief of Superior Court operations for the U.S. Attorney's office, described the current calendaring system as "inadequate to assure the speedy, efficient and fair disposition of misdemeanor cases." (Greene is not related to Judge Greene).
Judges assigned to misdemeanors are "kept waiting" for "inordinate periods of time" until a case finally gets to their courtroom, Greene said. And other participants in the system lose "vast amounts of time that might otherwise be used productively," he said.
Chief Judge Greene, however, called the proposal for an individual calendar "impractical" because of the huge volume of cases, and said it would result in "more continuances, higher backlogs, fewer appropriate guilty pleas and longer trial delays."
For example, the chief judge said in a memorandum to the judges committee, assuming a backlog of 3500 misdemeanor cases, and five judges to handle the caseload, an individual calendar would mean each judge would be responsible for 700 cases, at a rate of 10 or more possible trials a day. If a judge got wrapped up in a day-long trial, all other cases would have to be continued and the result would be "a mushrooming effect on the entire court calendar."
Some defense attorneys like Steffen Graae, argue however that the individual calendar system would put the responsibility on the judges to see that "they run their courtroom properly and keep the docket moving."
"As it stands now, the burden is on no one to see that a case moves through the system," Graae said.
In November, the judges' calendar committee unanimously concluded that the individual calendar proposal was "neither feasible nor practicable."