Time guidelines are part of real justice


by Chad C. Schmucker
State Court Administrator

In his guest column, “Dashboard justice in Michigan?” attorney Mike Nichols charges that Michigan’s courts are under “arbitrary deadlines” for timeliness, and he also seems to think that timeliness is the only performance measurement the Supreme Court wants the trial courts to apply. If he were better acquainted with performance measurement in general, and the basis for time guidelines in particular, he would realize that performance measurement is not about “how quickly we can push cases through the system.” Instead, it’s about a range of factors, all having the goal of the “effective, fair, and efficient administration of justice.”
Performance measurement is nothing new. The National Center for State Courts published its “CourTools” performance measures in 2005. Measures include, among others, “access and fairness,” reliability and integrity of case files,” “trial date certainty” – and yes, “time to disposition.” Indeed, as a 2011 NCSC report on model time standards observed, “Surveys of public opinion concerning the courts consistently find the chief complaint to be the slowness of case resolution.”

The NCSC, the American Bar Association, and the Conference of State Court Administrators have all proposed time standards for various types of cases, including misdemeanors. Indeed, most states have misdemeanor time guidelines. The ABA guidelines call for disposition of 90 percent of misdemeanors within 30 days and 100 percent within 90 days; the COSCA guideline recommends 100 percent disposition within 90 days; and the NCSC model standard calls for 75 percent within 60 days, 90 percent within 90 days, and 98 percent within 180 days. The Michigan misdemeanor guideline recommends 100 percent disposition within 126 days. These and other time guidelines are based, not on “arbitrary” perceptions of timeliness, but on the recommendations and experience of the courts themselves. In fact, the Michigan guidelines were updated in 2011 after extensive review by the trial courts, the State Bar of Michigan, and others.

Also, note that we refer to these as “time guidelines” – not rules, cut-offs, or drop-dead deadlines. The point is not that all courts must process cases as fast as possible. Rather, effective courts – what the NCSC calls “high-performing courts – should be aware of and monitor the time to disposition. There are many reasons for not meeting the time guidelines in a given case – some legitimate, others not so much. An occasional drunk driving case might require months of discovery, but that should be the exception and not the rule. A court that is consistently missing the time guidelines in a significant number of cases has an opportunity, thanks to the guidelines, to assess its own performance. Why would we not want courts to do this?

Mr. Nichols suggests that the time guidelines are unrealistic; in fact, courts’ experience, and the data, indicate otherwise. But more importantly, these time guidelines, which have been used for years, are only part of a performance measure initiative that will result in better public service and more efficient courts. Performance measurement has been used in the private sector for years, and it’s useful in government as well. We in the courts may not have to answer to shareholders or boards of directors, but we are certainly accountable to the taxpayers.