Overview of the Civil Justice System and Its Administration
Since the creation of the United States Constitution, there has been a clear distinction between the three branches of government. The third branch, the Judiciary, exists for two purposes: to determine justice according to the current laws and policies and to eliminate any legislation that is in violation of the Constitution. As with the other two branches, the Supreme Court has experienced many reforms over the years. In the 1870's, it was decided to increase the number of justices on the court from seven to nine. This number has remained the same since. Additionally, the Supreme Court has gained greater power over their discretion to decide upon which cases will be heard. However, the key principle that the Supreme Court has stood for over the years was judicial independence, or the court's ability to make decisions based upon justice and justice alone.
Their are three primary concepts that play into the measures taken by the Supreme Court for reforming their system. The first concept is that of Administrative Independence. Prior to Chief Justice Taft, the Supreme Court did not have full discretion in deciding their own docket. Any cases that were deemed Constitutionally justified for appeal were brought before the Supreme Court, resulting in an overly filled docket. Modernly, the justices have full discretion as to their caseload. The second concept is that of unification with in the court. Currently, state courts and federal courts are set up as separate entities which hear separate cases. The idea behind unification is to streamline the state courts and centralize those courts under the federal court system. The final concept aligns with that of the unification standard and is the management perspective. This perspective argues that the Supreme Court's ability to be the highest court of the land ensures that the state courts remain unified under the Supreme Court's decisions. It is these three concepts that have pushed the Supreme Court into its modern position.
The courts were established under article III of the Federal Constitution. Under that provision, "The judicial Power of the United States shall be vested in one supreme Court, and in such inferior Courts as the Congress may from time to time ordain and establish." From this section the Federal Court system emerged. The purpose of this branch was to ensure that judicial power remained in place in the highest offices of the United States. The judicial power ensures that congress cannot pass unconstitutional laws and that the president cannot enforce current laws in an unconstitutional manner. The means that the Supreme Court has to decide these issues is through determining whether a current law is unconstitutional. When a law is held to be unconstitutional, it is struck down and can no longer be applied to citizens. In recent years, however, the courts have begun overstepping their constitutionally defined role and instead have attempted to rewrite the law. It is this overstepping, known as Judicial Proactivity that is at the center of much debate and controversy.
Along with the justices are those who serve the courts, the primary office of which is known as court management. Court managers are retained by the courts to handle the daily caseload and ensure that all cases are heard in a timely and efficient manner. This position, as with the judges themselves, is considered one of civil service. As with any government positions, there are many issues weighing in on how the courts could improve themselves. This paper will discuss the issues of court security, case-flows, budgeting, jury management, computerization and informational integration, trial court performance evaluations, and the future direction that the court will likely take.
It has been well established for decades that all legal hearings are public record. In other words, the public may listen and observe any hearings within the building and the transcripts and decisions from all cases are available through the courthouses. With modern threats to safety and privacy, there is much debate as to whether the public should have such access to these records (Winn 307). In fact, modern legal theorists argue that,
Courts must limit the disclosure of judicial information when it threatens the effective administration of justice and when necessary in order to protect the safety and privacy of individuals participating in the judicial process. (Winn, 317)
Originally, the requirement for openness was required as a means of ensuring that all interested parties may discover the results of the case. With greater case results and court records being placed onto the internet, there are more uninterested parties reading these otherwise private cases. The result of this can be seen in the new movement towards the creation of an intervivos trust as a means of avoiding the public scrutiny of probate.
Time is money, and when it is the court's time, it involves tax-payer money. With that in mind, some courts have begun experimenting with systems known as differential case management and alternative dispute resolution. Differential case management involves directing the pathway for cases upon reviewing each complaint (Bakke 17). This method can then guide cases that will likely end in a settlement into alternative forms of dispute resolution offered by the court including mediation and arbitration. This allows the court matters to be solved quickly and in a much more complete fashion. For instance, a simple name change has been known to take as long as 120 days under a traditional form of court management. Under differential case management most name changes are completed in 30 days (Rios 25). Please see appendix 1 for a visual chart. Additionally, many courts offer services such as mediation as a free alternative to further motivate people to consider that route.
Another issue facing the modern court system is that of state financing. Modern citizens' opinions of a political topic can change as quickly as the wind. As a result, the public or their elected officials can approve measures that withhold tax payer funds from certain programs. In order to keep judges separated from politics, the law prevents the funds used for the judicial system from being voted on by the public.
Another issue in need of some reform, many would argue, is that of jury management. Jury duty and the right of the state to require its citizens to serve is specifically enumerated within the law of each state. It flows directly from the constitutions requirements for a jury trial in criminal and civil cases. A tension, however, forms when the jury must be properly sequestered. This responsibility falls to the judicial administrators.
One of the least expensive methods and one that holds the greatest advantage for the legal system is that of utilizing internet technology. Whether the court offers e-filings of standard forms, lists the current caseload calendar online, or publishes opinions online, all these measures provide greater celerity and efficiency in the legal system. One area that is becoming more common is the use of online conference rooms for basic hearings and legal updates. Such a technological step saves the litigants time and money as well as freeing up courtrooms for other cases to be heard.
With more and more judges litigating from the bench, their has been a public outcry for greater accountability of judges. As stands, most states select their judges through nomination or election. Once a judge is selected, they serve until they are either dismissed or promoted. In an attempt to improve the longevity of judges and ensure that those defending justice remain in office, some states have adopted judicial retention evaluation programs. These programs track and record the decisions that judges make and inform the public of those decisions (Andersen 1376). Additionally, some states use this tracked information when considering promoting a judge.