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Ask Judge Smith — Managing Cases, Part 2

Special to the News Columns

Ask Judge SmithLet’s compare a civil lawsuit to a game of chess. In chess, the object is to capture your opponent’s queen. The lawsuit equivalent of checkmate is an agreed or forced ending of the case.

Due to COVID restrictions, the trial courts did not try civil lawsuits for 15 months, and our caseload spiked. In addition, many parties refrained from filing cases until the courthouses reopened for business. The combined effect created a logjam that trial judges have been working overtime to discharge ever since.

Around 95% of civil lawsuits resolve without a trial. Hence, a judge with a 1,000-case docket can expect 50 of them to end by trial. Typically, the parties litigate at their own pace, and judges push them toward the finish line if they take too long. How long is too long? It depends on the circumstances.

What role should trial judges play in shepherding lawsuits toward just, speedy, less expensive outcomes? The answer is case management.

Think of case management as a giant funnel into which trial judges pour lawsuits. The goal is to clear cases as soon as practical and try the rest. What, if anything, can the court do, without taking sides, to push the parties to settle or dismiss their cases? Case management requires knowledge about the facts and law of the case, an understanding of human nature, and tireless hard work.

A civil lawsuit docket requires more reading than any other judicial assignment. On my first day on the assignment, I was responsible for 1,030 cases without knowing anything about a single lawsuit. There was no substitute for putting in the time. It took me six months, reading around the clock, to have a good handle on my cases. Of course, dockets don’t remain constant. Over time, caseloads shrink or grow based on the influx of new lawsuits and the judge’s clearance rate.

I provide each party with ample opportunity to plead their case. Both sides have time to conduct discovery. Generally, I require the parties to mediate their claims, and as a result, many cases settle.

Given my background, I’m hard to fool! I have litigated lawsuits for 34 years. I apply my expertise, prepare for hearings, and render orders. I listen to the parties, work with them, and use common sense to move cases forward.

Why do I push parties to move their cases? Because those are my marching orders from the Supreme Court and my chief judge. Delay costs extra; unlike fine wines, lawsuits rarely improve with age.

My judicial assistant and I regularly monitor our caseload. We proactively schedule and hold hearings and trials. I render a uniform trial order that reminds the parties of specific deadlines.

Nothing causes the parties to settle or dismiss their lawsuits like an imminent trial date, which spurs me to set trials when the rules of civil procedure allow. Typically, this translates to nine to twelve months, giving the parties ample time to prepare.

I ensure that the parties get a fair trial on the merits as efficiently as possible. Sometimes delaying or rescheduling a trial is the right thing to do. Still, by rule, continuances are supposed to be few and far between.

Judge J. Layne Smith is a bestselling author and public speaker. He serves Florida’s Second Judicial Circuit.

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