IF YOU ARE involved in an automobile accident, a dispute with a former business partner or a hassle about an overdue debt, and you ask today for a jury trial in the D.C. Superior Court, your case won't come up until some time in the spring or early summer of 1992. That's not because judges in this community aren't hard-working. It's because the criminals are. The court is so overburdened handling drug cases, murders and the like -- felonies have doubled since 1980 -- that civil disputes have had to be put on the back burner. More than half the Superior Court judges have been assigned to criminal cases, and the rest simply can't handle all the other work in a timely fashion. Some recent developments, however, are certain to improve matters.
Late last year Congress authorized the creation of eight new judgeships for the court. The nominees have already been chosen by the White House, and when they are sworn in, these new jurists will take some of the burden from their colleagues. Another series of actions, less noticed outside the legal community, will also contribute to the reduction of delay. Prompted, in part, by a speech by former U.S. senator Charles Mathias last year, Chief Judge Fred Ugast of the Superior Court has gradually instituted a number of procedural changes designed to make the court function with more efficiency and speed. These changes are announced in fine print in the city's legal notices, but they affect not only judges and lawyers but every citizen of this city who gets involved in any kind of civil legal dispute.
The court has just published amendments to its rules representing a commitment to new procedures that have been used on an experimental basis since last fall. They include a strong emphasis on mediation and settlement before trial. They address unwarranted delay by discouraging continuances, setting firm deadlines at every stage of litigation and, perhaps most important, substantially changing the way judges are assigned to individual cases. Until now, judges have been rotated among the various divisions of the court -- criminal, civil, family court, etc. -- on a fixed schedule. Some were moved in the middle of complex cases, and much time was lost while a new judge familiarized himself with the facts and issues already presented in court. Now a judge will be assigned a case as soon as it is filed -- not when it is ready for trial -- so that he can control the mediation and pretrial negotiations, and he will stay with a case until it is completed.
Some lawyers are not happy with these new, tight reins, but the court exists to resolve disputes not to accommodate those who want more time or can't make deadlines. If the new rules work as they are expected to, reformers hope that the changes, together with the addition of the new judges, will cut delay in half and get 90 percent of all civil cases into court in a year. If that is achieved, the civil courts of the District of Columbia will be among the most efficient in the country.