As the new editor of Court Manager, I’d like to take a moment to introduce myself. I have been working in the court system since I became a law clerk in 2004 in Columbus, Ohio. While my current job affords me the ability to travel my state, assisting local courts with case management issues, I began my career with little knowledge of court management. Fresh out of law school and the ink still wet on my diploma, I joined my county’s public defender’s office.
The first day on the job I showed up in one of the two suits I owned, a packed lunch in one hand and a notepad in the other. The mentor I was paired with kindly informed me I wouldn’t be needing either as she placed a heaping stack of files in my arms with a list of names and associated courtrooms on top. As the elevator dropped so did my stomach, and I wondered what I was in for. My mentor began to talk quickly about the strategy for the day. She noted that all of the cases on the list, which sat atop the files that had now begun to feel like a concrete block in my arms, were set for 9:00 a.m. There were five courtrooms that we would need to visit. Each of the five courtrooms had its own prosecutor. Some of the cases were set for pretrial, and we would be meeting the client for the first time. Some of the cases were set for a probation-revocation hearing, and the client would most likely be transferred from the jail on a bus and handcuffed in a back room that was also used for jurors. Some of the cases were set for trial. “Trial?! How can I go to trial on my first day of work?” I thought. As we descended the hall to Courtroom 13D her gait became a trot and her words kept pace.
“Good morning, sir, I’m your public defender. I’ve got 15 other clients this morning so please stay put outside this courtroom and I’ll get to your case as quickly as possible,” she blurted to the first client on the list. “Good morning, Tammy. We’re set for trial today. Have a seat here for a minute. I’ll check in with the prosecutor and see if any witnesses have shown up,” she said to the next one.
She motioned for me to enter the courtroom with her. As we approached the prosecutor, I saw a large table covered with files alphabetically organized. My mentor made a beeline to the table and scooped up four large files containing police reports, video surveillance, and photographs.
“Come with me,” she said over her shoulder. “This guy is in the back. He’s on probation for these three theft cases and he just picked up another one from Wal-Mart. He was arrested two weeks ago.” I followed her into the back hall where we entered a room marked “Jury Room.” There was a large oval table, two small bathrooms, and lots of tired chairs in need of refurbishing.
“Sam! Why are you stealing again?” she shouted. “Man, you know how it is. I gotta support my habit,” Sam replied. My mentor explained to Sam that with all the time hanging over his head and this new charge, he was in for some serious local time. Sam asked if treatment was an option since he hadn’t ever really been given the opportunity to get help. Just then my mentor’s pager went off. “Argh, we’re needed down the hall in 15A,” she sighed. “They’ve got another prisoner up there for me. Go ask the bailiff if he can contact the drug court coordinator to come do an assessment on Sam then meet me in 15A.”
I did as I was told and as we ran what seemed to be a marathon around the courthouse that day, pausing briefly to wait for a clerk to locate a file or for an advocate to be paged, I wondered, “Is this what I went to law school for? This isn’t the glamorous life depicted on TV.” We didn’t finish our last case until 4:45 p.m., and by that time my ham sandwich had bitten the dust. We did go to trial (even though we were fourth in line that day) and we won, by the way. I was exhausted, but happy to have made it through my first day.
Flash forward to a few months ago. I felt a tickle in my throat and thought I better head it off with a quick diagnosis and some medicine. I was leaving for a trip and didn’t want to deal with full-blown strep throat on vacation. I made an appointment with my physician for the next morning at 10:00 a.m. I arrived at 9:45. Secretly, I like to arrive early to doctor’s appointments to read the gossip magazines in the lobby and watch bad morning TV. These are the indulgences work life allows little time for. To my surprise, I was called back by the nurse at 9:50. Not wanting to be kept in the dark about George Clooney’s twins’ names, I squirreled the magazine under my arm and headed back. The nurse took my temperature, weighed me, and by 10:05 the doctor was in the exam room peering down my throat. The doctor muttered something, swiveled around to her computer, and began typing.
“Are you still at the CVS pharmacy on Fifth?” she asked. I nodded and she clacked away on her keyboard. By 10:20 I exited the doctor’s office and headed to the pharmacy’s drive-through window. “Name and date of birth?” the teller asked through the glass window. Minutes later, he shoved a pill bottle through the mechanical drawer and I was a happy customer. In less than one hour, I had my prescription in hand, the solution to my problem, and the answer to my dilemma. The experience was relatively painless and quite expeditious. “Man, these folks have got excellent case management going on,” I mused to myself.
Little did I know that first day on the job as a public defender, that life in the courthouse was very different from my doctor’s office. Each day began with 15 to 20 people waiting on me at 9:00 a.m. while I searched for their file, waited for an interpreter, got paged to another courtroom, and negotiated with prosecutors. Each day I disappointed my clients who came to court hoping for a resolution that very day, a diagnosis for their legal problem, and an end to the unknown.
The customer service I provided was very much unlike a visit to my doctor. There were no leather-covered couches, gossip magazines, bad morning TV, or even a box of tissues. The court was crowded, the security line was long, the old benches with foam padding protruding from each end were sagging, and the water fountain didn’t work. It was loud and filled with scary people and people that were scared. There wasn’t any literature about legal issues or the court system. There weren’t even signs directing you where to go. I wouldn’t have wanted to wait there a minute, let alone five hours. And sometimes after waiting those five hours, feeding the meter hourly, and taking the day off work, clients were sent off with a continuance and told to come back next month. They left without an answer. They left without knowing what would happen to the custody of their kids, if they could keep their job, if they would get their license back, or if they would do time.
When I think about court management today, I realize the many ways the system I came from failed to meet the expectations of the public, to promote justice in individual cases, and to provide an impartial forum to resolve legal disputes. Imagine going to the doctor today and being told you would have to wait an entire year for a diagnosis or that you needed an alpha-glucosidase inhibitor without any literature about what the heck that is.
As court leaders, we must be able to carry out the fundamental purposes and responsibilities of the courts and as the NACM Core states, we must “provide the leadership to ensure that these continuously guide court operations, policies, and procedures.” One of the ways we can do this is by sharing ideas, knowledge, and best practices through NACM’s publications. As editor, I hope to continue to make Court Manager an excellent resource for court professionals.
While editing the articles for this quarter’s issue, someone asked me if there was going to be a theme. I hadn’t really given much thought to it until I was asked. Then I remembered a recent court administrators’ roundtable I hosted. The conversation over a four-hour period ranged from whether to allow judges to bring pets and guns to work to best practices for collecting court costs. I concluded that the topics court managers deal with change daily and vary so widely that a potpourri of topics would best serve this audience. My goal as editor is to continue to share with you valuable information from both experienced experts and our peers in the trenches. To do this, your voice is needed. Share your court management experience with this community by contributing an article. Email firstname.lastname@example.org.