On Feb. 1, a man walked into the Woodward & Lothrop warehouse in Springfield, slipped a Zenith video recorder underneath his coat and sauntered toward the door. He was stopped and arrested on a felony charge of concealing merchandise.
Friday -- two months after his arrest -- he ended his trip through the Fairfax County courts, standing before a Circuit Court judge and drawing a sentence of eight months in jail.
Justice came swiftly by almost any bench mark: The national standard for processing felony cases from arrest through trial is within six months; Virginia's speedy-trial law calls for disposition of such cases in eight months.
Typically, Fairfax Circuit Court does better, said Barnard F. Jennings, the court's chief judge. It disposes of criminal cases in two to three months.
The caseload in the Fairfax court, the busiest of Virginia's 31 circuits, has increased steadily as the county has grown. Yet instead of becoming overwhelmed by the increasing number of lawsuits and criminal cases, officials say the Fairfax court has become more efficient -- some in the legal community say even faster -- in expediting justice.
"I think the Circuit Court is a great believer in 'justice delayed is justice denied,' " said Fairfax prosecutor Robert F. Horan Jr. "Judge Jennings definitely sets the tone."
"In about 18 years of practice, I don't think I've had a client express concern about timeliness," said Thomas L. Appler, past president of the Fairfax Bar Association, who primarily does civil litigation. "In very few instances is justice delayed in Fairfax."
According to the latest published figures, in 1984, the Circuit Court, which handles the most significant criminal and civil cases in Fairfax County, Fairfax City and Falls Church, had 14,659 new cases.
Legal experts say that what is happening in Fairfax Circuit Court -- and many other suburban Washington courts -- parallels the initial findings of research being conducted by the National Center for State Courts in Williamsburg. Researchers there say they have found that delay is not inevitable in high-volume courts, and that when delay exists, it is possible to reduce it significantly.
Their preliminary findings show that leadership, particularly that of the chief judge, plus commitment of the other judges and good communications with lawyers and court personnel are critical for minimizing delay.
"It's a serious problem in a lot of places, it's a nagging problem in others and not a problem at all in others," said Barry Mahoney, a director of research at the national courts center. While the public perception is that the wheels of justice turn slowly, Mahoney said, "Part of the story is that delay is not an absolutely pervasive problem."
Fairfax Circuit Court Clerk Warren E. Barry said the increased speed in Fairfax has been particularly noticeable in the past five years. "We've got one of the most efficient courts in the country," he said. "It's the philosophy of the chief judge. Barney Jennings is really hot on getting these cases tried."
Circuit Court Administrator Mark Zaffarano said that when trial dates were set recently in the court there were times available as early as May 20. "To me that's phenomenal," said Zaffarano. "An L.A. lawyer calls me, and he's thinking May 1987."
Civil cases, which as a rule take longer than criminal cases, also are expedited, said Jennings. He said civil cases typically are tried in Fairfax in two to six months after they are filed, compared with the national standard of within 12 months.
"It is a very fast court," said Joseph A. Condo, who handles civil cases and is president of the Fairfax Bar Association. "They put you on the docket in Fairfax, and you're gonna get heard."
Zaffarano cited several specific policies that speed cases in the Circuit Court, some of which are part of daily life in many suburban courts:
Strict limits on continuances. An attorney, for example, cannot use vacation as an excuse to postpone a case, he said. Some lawyers find the policy too strict. Condo contends that a civil case should be continued if lawyers on both sides believe that postponing trial will enhance the chance of getting it settled.
*Automation. Zaffarano said computers have enabled the court to process case information "10 times faster." Said clerk Barry: "We're almost totally automated. With the automation, we can move rapidly."
*Establishing early trial dates. Often, a trial is scheduled before suspects are indicted, as in the case of the man convicted of concealing merchandise. That way a separate hearing does not have to be held later to set a date, Zaffarano said. "We're eliminating a step."
*Rapid jury selection. Fairfax uses a "call-in system" for jurors. Potential jurors are assigned a day of the week for duty for a two-month period. The evening before their assigned day, jurors call a recorded message to determine whether they will be needed. The court's daily goal is to have 100 percent usage of jurors. Horan said it is not unusual for lawyers to have selected a jury and have them "in the box" in about an hour.
*Teamwork. Zaffarano said that on Fridays -- motions day at the court -- if one judge is backed up, the rest of the Circuit Court's 11 judges help. "It's an attitude," said Horan. "It's a philosophy that's shared by all the judges . . . . If just one or two judges felt that way, it wouldn't happen."
*Grand juries. Since 1982, a Fairfax grand jury has sat every month, speeding indictments.
*Relationship with the bar. "This court could slow to a grinding halt if the lawyers didn't accept the pace of justice," said Zaffarano. "I think it's a partnership." Jennings agreed: "It's not just the court, it's the lawyers, too . . . . They try real hard to have an efficient system."
While other courts in the area share a reputation for speed, particularly the U.S. District Court in Alexandria, lawyers say that is not the case in most courts in Washington.
"I'm in a case in Washington now that if it were tried in the Eastern District of Virginia would take half the time," said George D. Varoutsos, an Arlington lawyer who specializes in criminal cases.
Several lawyers in the suburbs said they try to avoid the District courts. "I don't go to D.C. Superior Court because of its reputation," said Varoutsos. "They have you on standby."
Frederick B. Abramson, president of the District of Columbia Bar, said innovative arbitration programs and other measures are helping to relieve chronic delays there. But he said he still hears complaints from lawyers about delay with the "run-of-the-mill" civil cases.
As courts speed the processing of cases, some in the legal community wonder if cases may be moving too fast. Some lawyers ask whether a person's day in court is being compromised for the sake of speed. Many admit they would prefer a slower pace sometimes to give them more time to prepare their cases.
Varoutsos said that while the court's continuance policy makes him and other lawyers work a little harder, the court's philosophy is positive for everyone. In some instances, said Appler, a system with only speed in mind can hurt litigants. In Fairfax, he added, judges will not impose an arbitrary schedule on parties but will make them adhere to the one in place.
"I think we are a quality court as well as a quantity court," said Circuit Court Judge Lewis H. Griffith. "We're compelled to be fast. I'm totally committed to the way we are processing cases."