The Essentials of Timely Case Resolution

Some general-jurisdiction courts face a vast array of case types. Judges presiding over these courts may be required to hear cases dealing with domestic relations, juveniles, probate, mental health, and traffic, in addition to complex litigation. How do judges timely resolve a docket composed of litigation lasting from minutes to months, with varying deadlines? How do courts strategically deploy their limited resources? What role do judges have in managing their caseloads? Where does a judge begin? What docket-management concepts might work for every court system, regardless of their size or jurisdiction?

Successful docket management requires an organized system of case resolution. Timely case resolution reduces unnecessary delay and cost to the court and litigants. It is necessary to meet the court’s mission of “fair and timely resolution of disputes.” By having the court control the pace of litigation, judges can reduce the life span of a case to a level that allows for timely disposition, while being able to respond to the ongoing surprises of modern litigation. Over time, the size of the court’s docket will shrink as cases are more timely heard and resolved.

In constructing a system for timely case resolution, a judge’s role is to set the parameters of the system. The implementation is left to administrators, clerks, staff attorneys, and court reporters. When properly implemented, the system has the ability to run itself, allowing judges to focus only on matters requiring the judge’s attention.

A system of timely case resolution has four essential components. The system should be 1) workable, 2) capable, 3) flexible, and 4) effective. Each component supports the others, and one deficient component dramatically reduces the system’s overall ability to resolve cases in a timely manner. The details may differ by district or locality, but the essential four components will be part of a successful system. The four components emphasize personal initiative, shared workload, and division of labor within every case management structure. Get the “system” to do the work, so that individuals within the system are free to focus on their respective tasks.

A Workable System

In case management, a workable system clearly delineates the path and process for cases, from the initial filing point through final disposition. When a case is first filed with the court, the system provides for its assignment, scheduling deadlines, and expected time of disposition. Scheduling cases and assigning judges provides notice to the parties of the court’s intention to “move the case along,” removing unnecessary expense and delay.

A workable system is built around the principle of eliminating any bottlenecks that hamper effectiveness. Often, the performance of the entire court system is limited by a small number of resources that must be available and coordinated for a case to move forward. These “pinch points” are created around the availability of needed resources, including:

  • Appropriate courtrooms
  • Clerks
  • Court reporters
  • Prisoner transport
  • Mental-health-patient transport
  • Sheriff’s deputies
  • Public defenders
  • Parties
  • Private attorneys
  • State’s attorney
  • Victim advocates
  • Witnesses (lay and experts)
  • Jurors
  • Courtroom technology

This list is not exhaustive. When one or more of these resources are necessary, but unavailable, the result is a delay in case resolution.

Consider a situation where a criminal motion is scheduled for hearing. The defendant and his court-appointed counsel must be present. At the same time, in a different courtroom, a second judge schedules the same public defender to appear in an unrelated case. Counsel cannot be at two places at the same time, and so one judge must inevitably yield and reschedule the hearing. But now someone must also re-coordinate court staff, court security, jail transportation, counsel, and other necessary resources. The lack of a functional case management system will perpetually result in these unnecessary delays that clog the court.

Contrast this with a functional system where the court has a formal scheduling procedure, based on availability of needed resources. Events are scheduled into time slots set aside for specific case types, determined by required resources. Judges each have a time and place suitable for their assignments every day. Such a system is designed to eliminate pinch points and empower the court staff to keep cases moving by knowing when and how each type of case is to be scheduled.

In a workable system, for example, the public defender does not need to be in two places at once. The sheriff has the court schedule and can plan coverage and travel accordingly. Because resource schedules do not conflict, even a limited number of support staff can effectively administer a moderately sized court and docket.

Under this system, scheduling is managed by court staff and not the parties. Scheduling conflicts can be moved to the next predetermined time slot where needed resources will be available. The cases essentially schedule themselves. Any “downtime” is not shared by the court, which has other cases scheduled. The court can adjust to fluctuations in case filings. For example, courts may see multiple criminal jury trials set for the same week. By the date of trial, almost all the cases will settle, but ample time exists for cases the need to be tried. To begin building a workable system, start with these steps.

First, list the resources needed for each type of hearing in your court. For example:

Criminal Jury Trial Mental Health Hearing
1 judge 1 judge
1 court reporter 1 court reporter
1 clerk ITV courtroom
Appropriate jury courtroom Ability to transport from/to hospital
Sheriff’s deputies State’s attorney
State’s attorney Public defender
Defense counsel Respondents
Defendant Sheriff’s deputies
Witnesses Doctors (4 different hospitals)

After completing the list for each of your hearing types, list the total resources actually possessed by your district. For example:

Resource Quantity Available Within Court System
Judges 9
Court reporters 10
Judicial referees 2
Secure jury courtrooms* 2
Secure jury courtroom* with ITV capability 1
Non-secure courtroom with ITV 1
Non-secure jury courtroom with ITV 1
Standard jury courtrooms 3
“Bench-only” courtrooms 2
Remote county courthouses 2
Public defenders (main courthouse) 8
Public defender (for both remote courthouses) 1

* Denotes courtrooms with secure passageways to the prisoner detention area.

Ultimately, the goal is to build a scheduling framework, based on the availability of the resources, by using the needs/haves lists to avoid resource pinch points.

A Capable System

The concept of capacity is closely related to functionality. Capacity in the judicial sense is not determined merely by the number of cases a court can hear at a time. Capacity must also be measured by how many cases can be scheduled and resolved in a timely manner. Every judicial district is faced with a never-ending stream of cases. A capable court system is able to maximize the number of cases it schedules, hears, and disposes of, within the availability of limited court staff and other resources. The dates a court sets must be so likely to occur that the parties consider them to be “certain.” The court needs to use the fewest number of days to resolve the largest possible number of cases. A capable case-resolution system must accomplish three things: 1) scheduling all the necessary events, 2) hearing all necessary events, and 3) accounting for the capacity of all necessary resources.

As with functionality, capacity can be aided by the authority of the court to set the rules regarding time and scheduling and empowering court staff to maintain the system. For example, if a criminal case is to be completed in 180 days, every new case must be placed on a path to be completed well within that time frame.

A capable system creates certainty and can handle fluctuations in caseload. For example, consider any one specific case type. Let us assume for every one hundred cases of this type, experience says on average only one will go to trial. There are not enough days in the year with your other work to schedule each of the one hundred cases to its own individual trial day. Worse yet, even if you could, on average 99 percent of these event slots would be wasted, along with your allocated resources, when those cases settle. Unknown, however, is which one of the hundred cases will actually go to trial and which ones will settle. What do you do? What if, by chance, two cases go to trial?

Maintaining the system’s capacity to hear all necessary events depends on balancing the number of cases the court needs to set and the number of cases a court traditionally hears. A capable system will provide for more capacity than is historically needed, possibly several times more. Over a year, more than enough times will exist to handle all unsettled cases, but the court maintains a limit on the times it schedules hearings. When done correctly, even a substantial fluctuation in the docket can be handled without any changes to the system. Litigants will need to treat their scheduled dates as certain because of the high likelihood the court will get to their case.

Finally, a capable system accounts for and conserves the capacity of all other necessary resources. To help determine the necessary capacity for your situation, list the different types of proceedings you conduct in your district and the estimated volume in a given time period. For example:

Type Frequency Volume Scheduled Actually Held
Mental health hearings Weekly 10-12 2-3
Preliminary hearings Weekly 15-20 Rarely
Criminal jury trials Annually Up to 4,000 20-30

A Flexible System

The goal of a workable and capable system should be to resolve 90 percent of the issues 100 percent of the time. But what about the remaining issues like the unusual, complex, lengthy, or emergency-type situations that might occur? To address these abnormalities, your case resolution system must adjust when necessary. Flexibility is the most cherished component of a case management system to judges. However, it is often implemented in ways that destroy the workable and capable components. For example, a judge refuses to be “locked in” to a schedule, rationalizing he needs to be free to handle the emergency case or the multiweek jury trial that may sporadically appear. Such a case management system results in court staff being unable to manage the bulk of the court’s business. Every case becomes a process of checking with the judge, gathering resources, scheduling, hitting pinch points, and rescheduling.

In contrast, a flexible system accepts the importance of workability and capacity and still provides 1) ample unscheduled time for the judge for preparation and opinion writing; 2) a process to handle unusually long trials; 3) redundant resources to handle vacations, sicknesses, and other absences; and 4) sufficient ability to respond to emergency events. The trade-off of the judge being “locked in” to certain dates is offset by the system being able to resolve almost all issues during those times, leaving the judge with most of his or her time to focus on the “problem” issues.

An Effective System

An effective case management system is successful in producing the desired results. One of the benefits is to empower the court staff to make decisions within the parameters set by the court. The staff handles the case management system, not the judge. A judge’s role in the system is focused in the courtroom and working with the parties on the resolution of the cases that are not “routine.” Clerks issue scheduling orders, set hearing dates, deploy resources, and notify parties, per system parameters.

The result is an efficient and responsive case management system that yields timely results. An effective system sets parameters like case-disposition time limits, plans to dispose of cases within those limits, and periodically monitors caseloads to ensure the system is working.

For example, case-disposition limits may be 24 months after filing for civil cases and 180 days after first appearance for criminal cases. This particular district plans to dispose of all civil cases within the time limits by setting a scheduling conference 180 days after filing for all non-domestic-relations cases. At the scheduling conference, the court sets all final discovery dates and a ready-for-trial date. In criminal cases, scheduling orders are given at the initial appearance and include a trial date within the guidelines. All of the scheduling plans have room for continuances, if required.

The role of the judge is to monitor his caseload to make sure the system is functioning. One way to do this is to provide judicial officers with a report of cases that have been pending for over “X” days. A recent report from one judge in a district is summarized as follows for cases over 150 days old:

Civil Cases Divorce Cases Criminal Cases
Case has settled–
waiting for final papers
4 1
Trial date set 9 2 1
Sentencing day set–
Presentence investigation ordered
Rule 16/Pretrial conference set 2 1
Totals: 15 4 4

Even though the judge is responsible for approximately 1,500 case dispositions per year, only 23 cases (5 of which are settled) are over 150 days old, all of which are on track to be resolved within case time limits. This system is functioning effectively.

A System of Timely Case Resolution

The pace of litigation determines the court’s caseload more than any other factor. Slow courts lead to backlogged courts. The courts that adopt a good system of case management, and then resist the pressure to relax their rules and deadlines, will see their dockets shrink over time.

Implementing a successful case management system is possible even with less-than-optimal resources. Maintaining the system, however, relies on the leadership and commitment of the judges and court staff. For the system to remain functional, the judges must be comfortable setting the parameters. To maintain the system’s capacity, each judge must be ready to set the pace and enforce the rules and time standards on litigants, while allowing court staff to fill their respective roles. At the same time, judges must monitor cases and be flexible enough to accommodate abnormalities, while still holding the parties accountable. Likewise, an effective case management system works best when individuals within the system are given the autonomy to use their own initiative, while still being held accountable by the other members of the team.


The Honorable Frank L. Racek is the presiding judge, East-Central Judicial District in Fargo, North Dakota. Matthew Dearth, J.D., is a law clerk at the East-Central Judicial District.

Editor’s Note: In the above article, Judge Racek and Mr. Dearth remind us of fundamental work of the profession that we are all faced with in balancing effective case management and using best practices. In their next article, they address best practices in their own jurisdiction and the reorganization and delivery of services. Armed with a powerful diagnostic tool that assists in identification of individual offender needs, how do we best respond to deliver integral services?