D.C. Superior Court needs more judges and more money if it is to cope with its current overload, says Chief Judge H. Carl Moultrie I.
"I don't know anything that the court could be doing that it isn't doing already" to fight court delays, Moultrie said. "The people of this city must realize that fighting crime is going to mean spending more money to keep the court working."
But several national authorities on court reform say that more resources seldom solve court delay. The problem in most courts, they argue, is not with the number of judges, but with attitudes among judges, prosecutors and attorneys who too often are resigned to long delays.
" D.C. Superior Court does have some resource problems," said Ernest Friesen, dean of the California Western School of Law, who studied Superior Court operations four years ago under a federal Law Enforcement Assistance Administration grant. But, he added, judges and prosecutors here "do not really talk turkey about what the problem is . . . . The key is for the court to take judicial control and maintain judicial control."
Interviews with 19 of the 44 judges in D.C. Superior Court, as well as dozens of prosecutors and private attorneys, reveals a wide disparity of views on how long court cases should take.
While some complain vigorously about the court's dilemma, others seem ambivalent about criminal matters that are delayed a year or more, or civil disputes that take three years or longer to resolve.
A study of courts nationwide conducted by the National Center for State Courts in 1978--the most recent such study--concluded that regardless of the number of judges or cases filed, some courts handle cases more quickly because judges and attorneys are more concerned about delays and do more to avoid them.
"How long it actually takes seems to shape how long it should take," said Larry Sipes, an author of the study. "What we were struck by was that so few places were exploring alternative techniques. Until a court has really tuned its management system, it ill behooves a court to go seeking new resources."
Judges in D.C. Superior Court have virtually unlimited discretion in managing the cases on their calendars, with few guidelines or restrictions. Some judges stand out as exceptionally fast on the bench and keep low the number of cases pending on their calendars. Others are regarded as slow and seem bogged down in pending matters.
Moultrie said the study's findings don't apply to his court. "There isn't a bench I know of where judges work as hard as ours do," he said.
Although comparing courts in different jurisdictions can be risky because they are organized in different ways and handle caseloads of varying size, a sample shows that some have responded to the overloads by changing the way they operate, with remarkable results.
"We thought that more money was the answer at first. But now we're finding that better administration works," said William Pierce, executive officer of San Diego County Superior Court in San Diego, Calif.
There, civil cases on the average were taking nearly 2 1/2 years to come to trial until 1981, when presiding Judge Gilbert Harrelson implemented strict time limits for lawyers to either bring cases to arbitration or to complete their trial preparation once issues are joined. Plaintiffs who fail to do so can have their cases removed from the trial calendar. Defendants can be fined up to $1,500.
Most civil cases there are now resolved in less than a year, said Pierce. "Lawyers know they have certain things to do and a certain time to do it in. It makes their life easier."
In Pittsburgh, where six years ago civil cases were taking around three years to resolve, the average waiting time now is around 19 months. "There is absolutely no excuse for delays," said Judge Nicholas Papadakos, chief of the Allegheny County Court of Common Pleas' civil division.
Papadakos attributes the relative speed of his court to an "autocratic rule" by judges. "You have to crack the whip," he said. "A judge orders a lawyer to jump, and he jumps."
D.C. Superior Court rules give lawyers six months to conduct pretrial discovery in civil cases, but there are no penalties for failing to meet the deadline. Moultrie said sanctions such as those in force in San Diego wouldn't work here.
"They're imposed very seldom," he said. "Litigating cases is a matter of cooperation between judges and attorneys , not sanctions."
Judges said the court's civil calendar could be reduced by as much as 50 percent simply by raising the monetary ceiling for small claims cases from the current $750, set in 1970, to $2,500. Many cases that previously would have been resolved under the small-claims procedures, where most litigants appear in court without attorneys, are now filed in civil court simply because of inflation, court officials said.
That ceiling must be changed by Congress, which governs the court's administration. One idea making rounds on the Hill would give control over the small-claims limit to the City Council or the judges. But no legislation has been written or formally proposed.
Said one Hill aide: "No one has asked for it. Congress is loath to step in and tell the court how to operate when the judges don't ask."
Moultrie said the court last year asked Congress to give judges control over the limit, but legislators have been "too busy" to deal with it. He said he expects the ceiling eventually to be raised to $2,500.
The court has attempted to trim the civil caseload by encouraging litigants to resolve their disputes through voluntary arbitration. But in the last year that program has handled only 10 cases, and officials said laws may need to be changed eventually to make the program mandatory, as in some other states.
An American Bar Association experimental program to screen civil cases and steer some litigants to arbitration is scheduled to begin here in October. The D.C. Bar is studying a mandatory arbitration measure, but no action is expected any time soon.
Lawyers cite the relative youth and inexperience of many of the court's judges as also contributing to delay. Some judges are often unable or unwilling to cut short long-winded lawyers and lack the confidence to ride herd on civil litigators with years more experience than the judges themselves, the lawyers said.
Moultrie disagreed, saying: "The judges we have had on this bench in the last 10 years have all become acclimated, and they're all doing a good job."
More than half the court's judges--26--have been on the bench seven years or less. Two more are expected to be sworn in this week, and a third vacancy has yet to be filled.
Recently retired judges say one reason for the rapid turnover is judicial "burnout:" judges can't sustain the pace of so many cases for long and opt to go fishing or return to private practice. Others simply get bored with work they find repetitive and tiresome.
On the criminal side, Sen. Arlen Specter (R-Pa.), chairman of the Senate D.C. appropriations subcommittee, has proposed moving cases faster by implementing a law requiring that criminal cases be brought to trial within 180 days.
National authorities cite such laws--provided they're equipped with stiff sanctions for noncompliance and court officials are willing to enforce them--as the main reason some cities have succeeded in reducing court delays.
In some jurisdictions, such as New Orleans, informal standards set by prosecutors have proved even more important than local laws. There, most criminal cases that don't result in guilty pleas go to trial within 90 days, said Orleans Parrish District Attorney Harry Connick.
Connick made long court delays one of the chief issues in his campaign for the top prosecutor's job 10 years ago. When he took office, he said, some cases had been waiting as long as two years for trial, with about 40 murder cases pending on the court docket.
Connick set a 10-day rule for filing informations, his state's version of indictments.
He ordered a take-it-or-leave-it approach to bargaining pleas with defendants and encouraged prosecutors and judges to fight requests for continuances. Police, judges and defense attorneys resisted, Connick said. "But we stuck to our guns."
Some judges occasionally work through their entire docket and find they have no cases pending at all.
By contrast, defendants in the District routinely wait months before they are ever indicted, and many judges complain that too many cases that should be diverted out of the system are clogging their calendars.
Officials in the U.S. Attorney's office here said they have too few prosecutors to meet a speedy trial standard and that the court's failure to adhere to the trial dates it sets gives them no leverage over defendants in offering guilty pleas.
Said Moultrie: "If we had the resources, we would have a speedy trial law."
Specter has proposed that Congress spend $3.6 million to hire an additional 21 assistant U.S. attorneys, and his subcommittee has passed a budget amendment to pay for seven additional judges.
One proposal that would cost the government nothing is being considered by U.S. Attorney Stanley S. Harris. That would shift back to the federal court here bank robbery, some armed robbery and some drug cases that have been sent to Superior Court since 1981. But he said that the impact of the move on Superior Court would be minimal.
Judges, meanwhile, said their burgeoning misdemeanor trial workload could be greatly reduced if new laws were passed reducing penalties for such offenses as petty theft, simple assault and drug possession.
Prosecutors say City Council action last December that reduced some thefts such as shoplifting to 90-day misdemeanors has significantly cut the number of jury trials and led to more guilty pleas in those cases, freeing judges and prosecutors to work on other cases.
No legislation to similarly change penalties for other crimes is pending before the council, and insiders there see little chance of any passing soon.