Judge has concerns over case management guidelines

By Roberta M. Gubbins
Legal News

Hon. Janelle Lawless, Chief Judge Ingham County Circuit Court, has concerns about the Case Management Guidelines established by the Michigan Supreme Court, which she said “can conflict with what the law allows parties in a lawsuit to do.”

For example, “in a civil case you have 93 days to serve the summons and complaint,” which can be extended for up to a year. Once it is served there are 21 days to answer if it is contested and “by then we have shot the guidelines, which call for 75 percent of all civil proceedings to be adjudicated within 364 days from the date of case filing and 100 percent in 728 days.”

“That is the major problem I see with the guidelines,” she said, “even though you are operating within what the law allows, it might be beyond what the guidelines say you should be doing,” which will be reported to the State Court Administrative Office (SCAO) and “looks bad” for the judge.

Another example is in child protective proceedings, her area, “where a child is in out of home placement (foster care), 90 percent of all original petitions should have adjudication and disposition completed within 84 days from the authorization of the petition and 100 percent within 98 days.”
“That is just a little over three months, which in these cases is incredibly difficult to make. If it is an uncontested case, the guidelines can be met, but with complicated cases, it is much harder. And, if I don’t meet the standards it looks like I am not doing my job correctly.”

Domestic cases, often for good cause, do not always flow quickly, Judge Lawless noted. In these hard times, “it is not uncommon for someone to want to delay the finalization of the divorce so that a person can remain on health insurance even when everything else is resolved. Everybody is happy but the case isn’t closed and it is going outside the guidelines. And it’s not justice to tell someone, you have to get divorced now even though you lose your benefits or you have to dismiss and start over.”

“What is troublesome about that is that the plaintiff is happy with being able to continue the case so they don’t have to dismiss it and re-file and yet on some report it will look like some judge is not doing their job correctly.”

The guidelines do not provide for a method to “opt out” even though the law allows adjournments for good cause, which, when it is the wish of the parties, the courts should be able to do “without making it look like we’re somehow deficient in how we’re doing our job.”

Customer survey
SCAO will also ask the courts to conduct a customer satisfaction survey, which will be distributed in 2013 0r 2014.

“I do have to say that there have been some judges that are finding it hard to qualify a criminal defendant as a ‘customer.’”

Customers will be asked questions about their interaction with the courts such as:

• How long did you have to wait in line?

• If you have a trial scheduled does it go on time?

• How were you treated by the staff?

Another performance measure is jury utilization. The guidelines look at how often courts call in people and then send them home without serving because the cases have been settled or delayed. Courts will also report how well they collect fines, costs and restitution in criminal cases.

“I do understand why they are looking at this and I know they get lots of complaints about some courts where things sit and sit and the people can’t get help, or people complaining about sitting for two hours before the judge comes for their hearing.”

Judge Lawless is concerned that SCAO will “tie the performance measures into how much money we get back from the state to run our courts.”

Lawyers will be affected.

Judge Lawless predicts there will be fewer adjournments and lawyers will have to show good cause for the postponements.

When lawyers take a case knowing they can’t fit it in, or double book hearings, “I don’t think they can count on adjournments to help them out.”
And she predicts that courts will be less lenient with delays in meeting discovery limits.

A plan is being developed for Ingham County Courts. It will be a “performance measure plan that includes the staff and the judges so everyone is on board with deadlines, which  can be on the files so everyone knows what they are. “

While she understands that the Supreme Court is trying to come up some objective way to measure whether or not the courts are doing their job, “if you have a judge that is consistently delinquent, SCAO could go to the Judicial Tenure Commission and ask for an investigation and sanction or plan to address the issue.”

The Case Management Guidelines, which became effective September 1, 2011, are  published in Administrative Order no. 2011-3.

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