"WAITING for Justice," the recent Post series on the city's courts by reporters Al Kamen and Ed Bruske, gave us a grim picture of delay and docket overload in Superior Court. Civil cases are backed up for almost three years; criminal cases are on hold for many months even though judges are shifted around to serve on the high-priority criminal matters. Other cities have similar problems, of course. A recent series in The New York Times about that city's criminal courts showed that they were in a state of collapse. This increased case load at the local court level has many causes: in criminal court, mandatory sentence laws make plea bargaining more difficult, and police, prosecutors and judges are under pressure from the public to arrest and convict more people on more serious charges; on the civil side, we are an increasingly litigious society in which every plaintiff is encouraged by publicity about extremely large jury awards and lawyers are advertising to convince the public that every misfortune can be assuaged by suing somebody.
The Kamen-Bruske piece that offered some conclusions was especially interesting. Cynics will be forgiven for having expected a simple plea for more judges, more prosecutors, more money. Instead we were offered a thoughtful list of suggested reforms, some of which will cost nothing at all. The civil calendar, for example, can be greatly reduced by moving more cases out of court and into arbitration. One example used in the series offers a good illustration. A physician and his wife waited more than a year for the court to settle a dispute over which of them was to have ownership of a single piece of property--their home--after a divorce. No complicated custody or alimony matters were involved, no corporation to be divided or pension rights disputed, just one house. Here is a matter that needn't be clogging the courts and taking judicial time. A competent arbitrator should be able to handle it at a fraction of the cost in time and money.
Another simple but obviously effective way to reduce the civil case load is to raise the jurisdictional limits in small claims court. Now, only disputes involving less than $750 can be settled in that fast, no- lawyer-needed forum. That figure has been the same since 1970 and should be revised, for example, to $2,500, as has been proposed by the Council for Court Excellence. The new ceiling would bring the District more in line with the limits in Maryland and Virginia and would take thousands of cases out of Superior Court.
Accelerating the processing of criminal cases is more difficult. Stringent time limits are hard to meet and carry a risk that important and complicated prosecutions might have to be dropped because the cases cannot be prepared in time. A less formal agreement among judges, prosecutors and defense attorneys--guidelines for progress in different kinds of cases--might work. So would a tough policy on granting continuances.
In the end, if we want a better, more efficient court system, we will undoubtedly have to spend more money. But we are fortunate in this city to be home base for a number of researchers, social scientists and legal experts who are studying the judicial system. Some of these very practical suggestions for reform come not from the lawyers and judges involved in the daily problems of Superior Court, but from outsiders who have studied these problems throughout the country and who can make some objective suggestions. It's time to try a few.