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Ask Judge Smith — Managing Cases

Special to the News Columns

Ask Judge SmithQ. Judge Smith, how have you handled the Florida Supreme Court’s emphasis on case management by trial judges in civil lawsuits? John

A. Let’s spend time framing the issue, and then I’ll tell you my approach for moving civil dockets.

Historically, the lawyers and parties to a lawsuit have driven their cases at their own pace. The court obliged if a party filed a motion and scheduled a hearing. The case stagnated if neither the lawyers nor the judge did anything to move the case along.

Because of COVID, the trial courts did not conduct jury trials for a prolonged period. Being safe was wise, but court dockets stacked up in response. Due to COVID variants, we did not try any civil jury trials in Leon County from March 2020 through June 2021.

The Florida Supreme Court directs trial judges to construe the rules of civil procedure to “secure the just, speedy, and inexpensive determination of every action.” Satisfying the Supreme Court’s mandate requires hard work, precise attention to detail, tactfulness, and good people skills.

I was a trial lawyer for over 25 years, and I have plenty of experience charging legal fees and being a consumer of legal services. Moreover, I was a businessman and a general counsel in state government.

On January 4, 2021, my chief judge assigned me one-third of Leon County’s circuit lawsuits, translating to 1,030 cases, including appeals. These cases included every civil cause of action cognizable under Florida law.

A judge needs to understand the history and context of each case. Consider that I didn’t know anything about these cases on day one! Thus, I read thousands of pages seven days a week for months.

When judges take over assignments, they inherit cases from their predecessors. In addition, parties file new lawsuits daily. Thus, their dockets will mount if trial judges don’t close out enough pending lawsuits to offset the newly filed actions.

A 100% close-out rate means the judge clears a case off his docket for every new one added. Thus, his caseload remains the same. A greater than 100% close-out rate means the judge clears pending cases faster than parties file new lawsuits; hence, his case count decreases. A close-out rate of less than 100% means the judge clears pending actions slower than parties file new cases, and thus his case count increases.

My caseload decreased from 1,030 to 708. I quickly resolved many cases, but others were more like marathons. I have never worked as hard, but that is what it took to thin my caseload. I remain vigilant and on-task.

My next two columns explain how my judicial assistant and I did it.

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

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