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Case-assignment systems stick with the status quo

Baltimore City Circuit Administrative Judge Marcella A. Holland

In the four years since former Baltimore Raven Michael McCrary sued his business partners in a New Orleans redevelopment project for fraud, seven Baltimore City Circuit Court judges have presided over the tortuous litigation.

The latest judge, W. Michel Pierson, took over the case in June, a year after the Court of Special Appeals remanded for retrial on damages a previous judge’s $33.6 million award. But after several weeks of intermittent testimony and argument last summer, McCrary, the defendants and all their lawyers are still waiting for a new dollar amount.

One reason for the delay could be that Pierson had not seen the voluminous case file, like retired Judge Paul E. Alpert before him, until it arrived — this time from Annapolis, in its several boxes — just as the trial was kicking off.

Despite the “fragmented” and “piecemeal” treatment of the case, McCrary’s lawyer, Kenneth B. Frank of Murphy P.A., has been pleased with the consistency of the judges’ rulings, which have largely been in the retired defensive lineman’s favor.

“The only problem has been everybody’s started from scratch,” Frank said, leading to repetition of certain legal or factual disputes within the case.

The McCrary case is an example of what some consider to be the downside of the court’s central calendar assignment system — each judge having to learn the complicated case anew, often in short order, with more to review each time.

But while some have suggested the city switch to a single-judge assignment system like that in the federal courts, it seems many more believe that one judge per case is a logistical impossibility in large state courts like Baltimore’s.

U.S. District Judge William D. Quarles Jr., who was a city circuit judge from 1996 until he was named to the federal bench in 2003, thinks the status quo is as it should be.

“I think the systems work well where they are, and I’m not sure they’d be substitutable if you put our system there or their system here,” Quarles said last month.

Case assignment schemes

In Maryland’s federal court, case assignment is pretty simple. After a lawsuit is filed or a defendant is charged, the case is randomly assigned to a judge, who, barring special circumstance, shepherds it to conclusion.

The case assignment scheme in Maryland’s larger state courts is more complicated, often dictated by a differentiated case management system that leads to a different judge handling each major phase of a case.

The principal determining factor for the central calendar in the state courts, it seems, is the number of cases and the scheduled rotation of judges through each division of the court. (In Baltimore City, some judges stay in an assignment for more than one term, and judges can trade assignments.)

“Volume and rotation are the two key words,” said retired Judge Joseph H.H. Kaplan, who was administrative judge of the city circuit court for 15 years in the 1980s and 1990s.

In fiscal year 2009, the most recent July 1-to-June 30 period for which numbers are available, 59,662 cases were filed in Baltimore City Circuit Court, more than a third of which — 23,085 — were criminal. There were 4,289 total cases filed in the state’s federal court in its corresponding fiscal year, Oct. 1 to Sept. 30, 565 of which were criminal.

“Under our system, we have a much higher volume than federal court, so we don’t have the luxury of having a single-judge system,” said Judge M. Brooke Murdock, who oversees the city’s busy criminal docket.

Baltimore City Circuit Administrative Judge Marcella A. Holland said handling a big civil case while trying to process so many criminal cases would be “impossible.” Two veteran Baltimore-area attorneys used that same word.

“There’s no way one judge can clear out hundreds of cases in a month,” Holland said, which is what city judges would have to do to keep pace if they all handled criminal cases in addition to civil, family or juvenile cases, as is the practice in federal court.

Holland would only go as far as to say single-judge assignment “would probably be a good system” for her court — if she had double the number of judges and courtrooms and didn’t have to include family or juvenile cases in the mix.

Case assignment schemes vary statewide, from Baltimore City Circuit Court, which has 33 judges, to Caroline County Circuit Court, which has only one, Karen Jensen.

“The simple answer is for assignment purposes I get everything,” Jensen said.

While Baltimore has the volume problem, “We’ve got the challenge of there’s only one of me,” Jensen said, adding that keeping track of cases is difficult but that her staff helps her manage.

“I’m a central calendar system and I’m a single-judge assignment,” she said.

Hybridity on both levels

At any given time, the U.S. District Court has 10 active judges and a few senior judges. The active judges each manage a few hundred cases, doing everything from setting schedules to presiding over trials in a range of civil and criminal matters. Federal magistrates handle certain parts of criminal cases and can pitch in on discovery and settlement in civil cases, according to Chief Deputy Clerk Lisa Rosenthal.

In the city court, at any given time, 15 judges are assigned to hear criminal cases, 10 hearing civil, four hearing family cases and three detailed to juvenile matters.

A city court criminal case generally goes to the assigned arraignment judge first, then the assigned reception court judge to see if a pretrial plea is possible, and eventually, if necessary, to an on-duty trial judge. A civil case follows a similar path, going to a central motions or chambers judge and then on to another civil judge for trial. A different judge hears postponement requests and another judge or attorney might mediate the case before trial.

There is some hybridity to both state and federal courts, however.

In federal court, magistrates handle certain tasks for which a U.S. District judge is not necessary, there is a chambers judge to handle certain pressing matters, and in a pinch, judges pick up each other’s cases.

“One of the things our court does even with an individual calendar system, they’re very good at backing each other up,” federal clerk Rosenthal said. “It’s not like we’ve completely abandoned … some of the advantages the master calendar does provide.”

In the city circuit court, criminal judges handle their defendants’ violations of probation, and juvenile cases each stay with one master, Holland said. There’s also a Business & Technology track that functions like the federal court for particular complex cases in Baltimore City and Montgomery County. Another small percentage of cases are specially assigned to judges for their entire lives in court.

Holland specially assigned the City Hall corruption cases and a recent carbon-monoxide poisoning collective action, but not McCrary’s insurance fraud case.

Holland said the McCrary matter is “a unique case” that probably could have benefited from special assignment.

“But very few cases require that one-judge touch,” Holland said.

‘Apples and oranges’

The continuity that comes with one judge is but one of the reasons why proponents of a single-judge assignment system prefer it. The possibility of gamesmanship or forum-shopping is also reduced, advocates point out.

Case assignment to judges is still random in circuit court, Holland and Quarles pointed out, militating against strategies to play the system. And because of the way the caseload is distributed between judges in the circuit court, Holland said, assessing judges’ productivity while they tackle different tasks is like comparing “apples and oranges.”

“I will say that almost always if you are a lawyer and you have an important case that’s complicated and you want to make sure it gets the best attention from the judicial system, you would like it to be specially assigned,” said Baltimore City Solicitor George A. Nilson, because it means “some judge owns the case.”

Thomas Beach, who recently had a piece of civil litigation in the city handled by several judges, said such a system would seem to lead to “a waste of judicial time.”

“It seems to lack some continuity when you do it that way,” said Beach, a partner at Whiteford, Taylor & Preston LLP. “The assigned method appears to be more judicially economical.”

U.S District Judge Quarles hears that criticism but doesn’t believe it’s the end of the story from an administrative perspective, as not all cases are like McCrary’s.

A state court docket consists largely of “fairly routine civil matters, such that there might not be much of an advantage having them overseen by the same judge,” Judge Quarles said. Further, more than 90 percent of civil cases are resolved ahead of trial.

“The cases are going to settle as long as they’re pushed along through the system,” Quarles said. “I’m not so sure that it’s necessary to have the same judge applying the attention as long as there is a persistent push on the judge’s end.”

‘The sanity factor’

Central calendars have their own advantages, according to Greg Hurley, an analyst at the National Center for State Courts in Virginia. For instance, judges with special skills can be given dockets that highlight those abilities.

“One other advantage is if you’re doing the same type of case all day … obviously you can do them a lot quicker,” Hurley said, adding that might save space and security resources.

Another reason the central calendar makes sense for the city circuit court and other state courts in Maryland is because judges in those courts rotate assignments, the idea being a regular change of scenery — from civil or criminal to family or juvenile courts — keeps judges fresh.

Quarles said rotation staves off boredom, and Nilson, who has never been a judge, spoke of “the sanity factor.”

“A cradle-to-grave assignment system would get in the way of the rotation system,” Nilson said.

Hurley said about half of the nation’s state courts use each kind of assignment system, with the bigger jurisdictions favoring central assignment and smaller ones using single-judge assignment.

“One thing that I have seen in talking to lots and lots of people that work in the court system is whatever system they’re in they’re going to say is the best,” he said.

M. Albert Figinski cautioned single-assignment supporters that the federal system is “not a panacea.”

“There are problems with multiple judges touching a file in the state system, but look, there are problems in the federal system where judges sit on cases for eternity,” said Figinski, an attorney at the Law Offices of Peter G. Angelos PC and a former city circuit judge.

“My experience over 49 years at the bar tells me that there’s only one … true measure of a system, and that is the energy, dedication and competence of the judges,” Figinski said. “And I don’t think that the single-assignment system is without its defects and I surely understand that the central calendar has defects. But the bottom line is what works is judges who focus, have some energy and know what they’re doing.”