Generally speaking, the purpose of placing a case on a scheduling order is to work with the parties to ensure that the case progresses meaningfully toward resolution by trial or otherwise. In this way, the Court hopes to avoid the “inordinate delay in resolving issues in dispute [that] results in prejudice to the judicial process.” See Justice v. Sovran Bank, 918 S.W.2d 428, 430 (Tenn. Ct. App. 1995); see also State v. Davis, 466 S.W.3d 49, 79-80 (Tenn. 2015) (Lee, J., concurring) (identifying problems that arise from untimely resolution of cases and concluding that "the timely resolution of criminal cases is essential to the pursuit of justice.” ).
The Court’s scheduling orders include provisions necessary for the case to progress, including, among other things, provisions addressing the exchange of discovery; the filing of Rule 12 motions, if any; and the providing of various notices. Once these tasks have been completed, the case is set for a status conference a few months forward where the parties, at that time, will have a sense as to how the case should proceed.
Of course, the Court’s exercise of authority over its dockets “requires an exercise of judgment and the careful weighing of the competing interests.” See Bell v. Todd, 206 S.W.3d 86, 93 (Tenn. Ct. App. 2005). As such, the interests of the Court in allocating judicial resources on a heavy docket must also be balanced, in individual cases, with the interests of the State, the accused, and third parties in resolving the matter.
To this end, the Court will generally inform the accused at arraignment that, if there is a need to have this particular case placed on the docket earlier than the status conference, the Court will not hesitate to address that need. Among the myriad reasons for the Court to take action could include, for example, that a motion has been filed which requires earlier resolution; that the case has resolved without trial or motion practice, such as by plea or dismissal; or that the parties have requested that the case be set for trial. In this way, the alacrity with which the case moves, at least initially, is entirely up to the parties to the case, subject to a backstop with the status conference.
On the other hand, if the parties have not otherwise requested for the Court to address the case, the case will be heard and addressed at the main status conference. Importantly, the Court will not generally set a case on the docket unless there is a need or a reasonable expectation that the Court, as opposed to the parties, will need to take particular action. If the needs of a particular case are addressed principally to action needed by the parties—such as the need to arrange meetings among themselves or with possible witnesses; the need to engage in plea negotiations; or the need to discuss and arrange for the exchange of information—the parties are likely capable of addressing these needs on their own.
The Court believes that the routine practice of placing cases on the docket for “discussion” or “status” without the need or expectation of any court action—and with the typical result that the case is passed to another date—places an undue burden the Court and its staff. If routinely followed, such a practice can multiply the number of cases on a given docket and thereby help to contribute to lengthy and unnecessary delay in individual cases.
Although it may take the judge only a short time to pass a case at the end of the morning, this singular focus upon the physical act of passing the case perhaps ignores the impact of this routine practice on the other resources of the Court.
For example, for every single case placed on the docket for review or status, the following resources are impacted:
Criminal Court Clerk’s Office: For each case placed on the docket, the Clerk’s office is impacted by the time and human resources that it takes to prepare the morning dockets, to pull the physical files for use by the Court; to update entries in the Rule Docket; and to prepare and complete the daily minutes books, among a host of other duties. The resources of the Clerk’s office should be reserved for those cases in which a real need exists for an inmate to be present; not for those cases where the case is simply passed to another date without necessary court action.
The Hamilton County Sheriff: For each person held in custody at the Hamilton County Jail, the Sheriff’s Office is responsible for the preparation and transport of that inmate from the jail; for the inmate’s safety and security while in temporary detention at the courthouse; for the safe and timely transportation of that inmate to the courtroom; and for courtroom security otherwise. As the number of inmates on a court’s docket is increased, the limited resources of the Sheriff are correspondingly diminished. The Sheriff’s resources should be reserved for cases in which a bona fide need exists for an inmate to be present; not for those cases where the case is simply passed to another date without court action.
Workhouse Staff: For each inmate housed at the Workhouse appearing on the Court’s docket, enormous resources of the County are expended in preparing and transporting the inmate fifteen miles on interstate highways to appear in court. The transportation risks delay, highway accidents, security breaches, and comes at financial cost to Hamilton County. The County’s financial resources, in addition to those of the Workhouse staff, should be reserved for those cases in which a legitimate need exists for an inmate to be present; not for those cases where the case is simply passed to another date without court action.
Office of the District Attorney General: The District Attorney General's office is well-led, and it handles its cases both efficiently and professionally. However, for each case placed on the docket, the office of the District Attorney General, and the assistants and administrative staff assigned to prosecute the case, must pull and prepare the case for discussion.
The daily impact of placing scores of cases on a daily docket for discussion among the parties, but without the need for Court action, can impair the progress of cases that do require Court action. For example, every time an assistant district attorney is pulled out of the courtroom to discuss a case that will ultimately be passed to another day, that assistant is not present to handle litigation of motions or otherwise.
Even if the assistant is physically present in the courtroom, his or her attention is diverted by a number of people seeking his or her consideration, and, not infrequently, cases were passed to another date simply because the parties could not wait longer or were simply unable to meet due to the volume of other cases on the docket.
The assistant district attorneys are capable and professional advocates. However, as a practical matter, the Court cannot address a matter if the assigned member of the District Attorney’s office is not present and ready to proceed. As such, the process of setting scores of cases simply for “discussion” among the parties greatly impacts the ability of the Court as a whole to address matters that require the Court’s attention.
Counsel for the Defendant: When scores of cases are placed on the docket for “discussion” and without the need for court action, defense counsel may spend hours in court waiting for an opportunity to discuss the case with the assistant district attorney assigned to the case.
This problem is particularly acute when counsel is appointed to represent indigent defendants, as claims for compensation are often replete with claims for time spent “waiting” to discuss the case. The Court believes that resources are not wisely used by asking competent counsel to “wait” in Court to discuss a case, particularly when the process of discussing the case does not require the resources of the Court to accomplish the task in the first instance.
Just as easily—and perhaps more productively—the parties can discuss the case at a time of their choosing and convenience without the need for the case to be placed on the docket.
Witnesses, Law Enforcement Officers, Victims, and Family Members: As noted above, placing scores of cases on the docket for “discussion” without the need for court action has the practical effect of impairing the progress of those cases that do require Court action. When evidentiary hearings cannot be held due to the absence of the parties addressing the volume of “discussion” cases, witnesses are forced to wait in the gallery—sometimes for hours and sometimes for the day—until all of the parties can be assembled.
With a load of cases on the docket for “discussion,” it was a regrettably frequent occurrence that a hearing would be postponed simply because the parties were not able to address the issues, with the result that the witnesses have to come back another day to repeat this process anew.
Such a process has real and tangible impacts on these members of the public. If the witness is a member of law enforcement, the process either removes the officer from his or her regular law enforcement function, or it removes him or her from off-duty personal rest time. For every law enforcement officer sitting on a bench in Court waiting for a case to be called, that officer is not productively engaged in the community (or getting needed rest).
If the witness is a member of the public, the witness may be losing a day of work, and, increasingly, may be forced to make arrangements for the care of others in their charge, such as their children, parents, or others. The system rarely accounts for, or even acknowledges, this loss of time and resources by these third parties. However, our court processes should recognize these losses and avoid them where possible.
Perhaps most importantly, placing scores of cases on the docket for “discussion” without the need for court action places tremendous burdens on the alleged victims of crime, as well as family members of the accused and the alleged victims. For every time that a case is passed, an interested victim or family member may be required to wait for hours to have the case heard, only to be asked to come back in another 30 to 45 days for the purpose—from their perspective—of waiting again. While some cases are resolved more quickly than others, this practice has resulted in an alleged victim or family coming back to court 5, 10, 15 times, or more, without the case ever being resolved.
Importantly, where a person is a victim of a crime, is a witness to a crime, or is a concerned family member, that person did not ask or seek to be part of this process. Rather, they were forced into this system by the alleged actions of others, and they are required to shoulder substantial burdens that, from their perspective, appear to be pointless.
This process leads to justified public frustration, condemnation, and contempt for the judiciary, and it diminishes the courts as a place where disputes can be fairly and efficiently resolved. See State v. Davis, 466 S.W.3d 49, 79–80 (Tenn. 2015) (Lee, J., concurring) ("Citizens lose respect for a court system that does not, without adequate explanation or reason, timely dispose of cases. "). As a part of the constitutional government of this State, the judiciary has an obligation to be responsive to the needs of all the people that it was created to serve, and the Court fails to meet this obligation if it ignores the tremendous costs that its procedures have on third parties.
The Court takes seriously the Supreme Court’s command that it “adopt and enforce rules and procedures which control and manage dockets to avoid unreasonable delay which saps public trust and confidence in the courts.” See State v. Blackstock, 19 S.W.3d 200, 213 (Tenn. 2000).
For these reasons, the Court has adopted a new system for managing cases. As the process improves with experience, the Court hopes to maintain public trust in our judicial system as a place to fairly (and expeditiously) address our public safety needs.
Hamilton County Criminal Court
600 Market Street, Chattanooga, Tennessee 37402, United States
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