Redefining Case Management: A Court Administrator Perspective

Alan Carlson Alan Carlson
CEO (Ret.), Orange County Superior Court, California
September 19, 2018

At the beginning of my career in court administration, I was fortunate to be part of the team at the National Center for State Courts that produced the first empirically based study of case processing times in major civil cases across the country. The study documented the positive impact of judges taking responsibility for managing cases, and the full results were reported in the monograph Justice Delayed. Follow-up projects demonstrated that judge-driven case management significantly improved the pace of litigation. 

Initially, the project was criticized for focusing only on the pace of litigation. By focusing solely on speed, the criticisms tended to hide underlying objections to change, such as taking management of cases away from the lawyers and adding to the traditional role of judges. Recently, however, civil justice reform efforts in several states and the work of the Conference of Chief Justices’ Civil Justice Improvements (CJI) Committee have reaffirmed the benefits of strong case management by the court. The projects have also significantly added to our knowledge of effective case management practices. IAALS’ recent publication, Redefining Case Management, also provides an updated set of civil case management guidelines based on the experiences of state and federal efforts.  

Implicit in the updated guidelines are a number of noteworthy shifts regarding people’s view of, and attitudes about, strong case management by the court. The discussion is not focused on the overall pace of litigation; the goals are “fair, efficient, and accountable” case management, not just faster litigation. Litigation must be managed by the court, with a recognition that there is a responsibility to the litigants and the public, as well as the lawyers. Moreover, the litigants need to be recognized as people, not cases. 

The guidelines emphasize approaches that are “just” and “inexpensive,” not just “speedy.” As with discovery, case management is to be proportionate to the needs of the case. There should be consistency across cases in the application of case management rules and policies. Significantly, there is now a recognition of the role of court staff supporting the judge—“case flow management is a team sport.” Finally, courts must measure their performance in implementing the guidelines, and share this information with the public. 

Clearly there has been significant progress in institutionalizing case management. If this succeeds, we can improve public trust and confidence in the judiciary, which is sorely needed today.