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The 2010 Criminal Calendaring Pilot in Hennepin County District Court
Judge Mark Wernick
December 28, 2009



During 2010, Hennepin County District Court will roll out a criminal calendaring pilot in which, by September 2010, all Hennepin County criminal cases—misdemeanors, gross misdemeanors and felonies—will be blocked to a judge at either the first court appearance or the first pretrial conference. Each judge having a block of criminal cases will serve on a four- to eight-member team of judges hearing the same kinds of criminal cases.  Each team will adopt common practices and procedures and will meet regularly with the lawyers and probation officers who appear before them. On January 4, 2010, the first phase of this blocking and teaming pilot will be implemented in the Third Division (Ridgedale). In May 2010, the second phase will be implemented in the Second and Fourth Divisions (Brookdale and Southdale). Finally, in September 2010, the First Division (Minneapolis) cases and all Hennepin County felony cases will be blocked to individual judges working with a team of judges. During the duration of the pilot, the master calendar system for managing criminal cases will be eliminated.  In 2012, the Hennepin County bench will decide whether to make permanent all or part of this blocking and teaming pilot.

 

Before describing the 2010 calendaring pilot in more detail, it will be helpful to define various calendaring systems and give a brief history of how those systems have been used in Hennepin County. 

 

Calendaring Systems

Master Calendar System

In a master calendar system, judges are assigned to preside over a particular stage of a case instead of all stages of the same case.  For example, one judge will be assigned to a misdemeanor arraignment calendar for a set period of time.  Cases on that calendar which are not resolved will be put on a pretrial conference calendar, where a second judge will be assigned.  Cases on the pretrial calendar which are not resolved will either get continued to another pretrial calendar, where yet another judge is assigned, or go to a master trial calendar, where a pool of judges will be waiting to be assigned a trial from that calendar. 

 

The strength of a master calendar system lies in its ability to get trial-ready cases to trial on a certain date. With a pool of judges available for trial each day, the master calendar system is designed to work much like an airline or post office service counter where one line of customers waits for one of several service counter workers to become available. This system can be more efficient than a block system, where, to follow the analogy, cases must wait in separate lines, one line for each judge. 

 

Another strength in the master calendar system lies in its flexibility.  If a judge becomes unable to preside over a previously assigned calendar, a central administrator can go to the pool of trial-ready judges to replace the unavailable judge.  However, this flexibility can undermine the system’s ability to offer trial date certainty if the pool of trial-ready judges becomes too small to manage all the cases waiting in line on the master trial calendar.

 

The weakness of the master calendar system is that a judge may feel little motivation to take an ownership interest in a case during its early stages. A judge’s inability to resolve a case at a first appearance or pretrial conference does not result in that judge having to do more work on that case.  The case will simply proceed to a later stage with a different judge. Similarly, lawyers may not be motivated to settle a case during the early stages.  In particular, defense lawyers may have an incentive to continue a case to a master trial calendar in hopes of obtaining a better disposition than what was made available by the judges who presided at the earlier stages. As one court administrator said at a recent seminar, “The master calendar system will work well if the ‘Santa Claus’ judges are assigned to the early stages. If the ‘Santa Claus’ judges are in the trial calendar pool, the system won’t work.” 

 

Blocking System

In a blocking system (also known as the “individual calendar system”), each case is assigned to an individual judge, who is then responsible for all subsequent stages of the case. 

 

The strength of a blocking system is that each judge is motivated to manage the case at the early stages of the proceedings.  To the extent a judge actively manages his or her cases during the early stages, cases that will not be tried should settle earlier and cases that go to trial should be tried by better prepared lawyers (and judges). Delays attributable to judge shopping are eliminated. 

 

A blocking system has its weaknesses.  Individual judges have varying case management abilities.  This leads to differences among judges in case disposition times.  With judges responsible for only their block of cases, there could be little motivation among judges to help each other with day to day calendar problems.  A blocking system can also create more scheduling problems for lawyers who have pretrial proceedings scheduled before different judges at the same time rather than being heard on one pretrial calendar.  Finally, compared to a master calendar system, blocking may require more work for each judge’s staff because each judge’s staff, rather than a central administrator, may be responsible for managing the judge’s calendar.

 

Team Calendar System

A team calendaring system combines features of the master calendar and blocking systems.  Judges are divided into teams, with each team hearing the same types of cases.  A team may operate as a small master calendar system, with judges having the best settlement skills presiding over the early stages of the cases.  A team may also operate as a blocking system, with each case blocked to a judge within the team, but with the understanding that team members will assist each other when a judge’s calendar, including a trial calendar, is overscheduled. 

 

A team calendar system allows for the accountability and sense of ownership of cases associated with a blocking system while maintaining at least some of the flexibility of a master calendar system.  The success of a team system will largely depend on the team members’ efforts to work together to manage their calendars and to adopt and maintain common practices and procedures. 

 

History of Calendaring Systems in Hennepin County (in a Nutshell)

Hennepin County has a long history of managing criminal cases on a master calendar system.  Until recent years, lawyers wanting a criminal case assigned to an individual judge at an early stage of the case were required to make that request to the chief judge.  On a case by case basis, the chief judge would decide whether to assign a case to an individual judge. 

 

In late 1998, there was an inordinate amount of felony cases (up to 700) pending trial on the master trial calendar.  The Hennepin County Board and the bench were receiving complaints about the backlog from both prosecutors and defense lawyers.  The board and the bench were also concerned about overcrowding in the jail caused by the backlog of felony cases. 

 

In early 1999, the Hennepin County bench arranged for the National Center for State Courts (NCSC) to study the management of criminal cases in Hennepin County.  In October 1999, the NCSC issued a 40-page report containing a number of findings and recommendations.  One finding was as follows:

 

The court uses a “master calendar” assignment system for criminal cases.  The result of this type of organization is that at least three or more judges may preside over parts of a case before it is disposed.  There is no evident coordination among judges based on the age of cases in the system.  Because this assignment system prevents continuous control of cases, judges do not feel empowered to encourage early dispositions.  The master trial calendar also facilitates forum shopping and provides a disincentive to litigants to reach agreements early in the process.1

 

Among the NCSC recommendations was that felony cases be blocked to individual judges after the first court appearance.  Noting that blocking encourages judges to take ownership of cases at the early stages, the authors of the report said, “Taking ownership allows a judge to control all progress in the ‘owned cases’ from inception to disposition, promoting early dispositions whenever possible. Judicial work that produces early dispositions is rewarded by moving a smaller calendar and speedier trials.”2 In addition to its blocking recommendation for felonies, the authors recommended that judges with blocks of criminal cases work in teams so that judges on a team can back up other judges on the team whose calendars become overcrowded.3

 

Shortly after the NCSC report issued, the Hennepin County bench implemented a blocking system for homicide and first-degree criminal sexual conduct cases.  This “special assignment” system, which remains in place today, calls for the presiding judge of the Criminal Division to assign a case to a judge at an early stage of the proceedings, but after the lawyers have agreed on a trial date.  The presiding judge will assign the case to a judge who would otherwise be assigned to the master trial calendar pool on the trial date agreed to by the parties.

 

In 2005, a Hennepin County bench committee was formed to review options for blocking all serious felonies to individual judges. Two performance measurements in 2004 and 2005 highlighted problems with the then-existing master calendar system.  The first performance measurement involved the time it takes to dispose of a case. State guidelines call for 90 percent of serious felony cases to be disposed of within four months after filing, and 97 percent to be disposed of within six months. In Hennepin County, during the first six months of 2005, 61 percent of serious felony cases were disposed of within four months of filing and 81 percent were disposed of within six months.4  Based in part on the 1999 NCSC recommendations, many Hennepin County judges believed that a blocking system would improve the time to disposition rates.

 

The second performance measurement involved the high number of cases reaching the master trial calendar. In 2004, 55 percent of serious felony cases were set for trial on the master trial calendar. Only 9 percent of those cases went to a trial verdict. Lawyers were preparing for trials; and victims, police officers, and civilian witnesses were being subpoenaed for trials that were highly unlikely to occur. Many Hennepin County judges believed that a blocking system would lead to a decrease in the number of cases being set for trial and an increase in the percentage of those cases being tried.

 

In the fall of 2005, the bench voted to implement a “felony block” pilot, to begin in January 2006 and to be assessed in 2008. The pilot would include felony person offenses and other serious, non-property, felony offenses (e.g., felony DWI). Homicides and first-degree criminal sexual conduct cases would continue to be blocked to judges having master trial calendar assignments.  Under the pilot, after a first appearance, cases would be assigned to one of six judges, each of whom would work full time on his or her block of cases. The six judges would have no other assignment, criminal or civil.  In order to protect the “integrity of the pilot,” no felony block judge was to take a case assigned to another felony block judge, even if the other judge was having problems managing his or her calendar. The pilot resulted in six fewer judges being available to take trials off the master trial calendar, but the master trial calendar was left with a smaller number of cases. Only lower level felonies, gross misdemeanors, and misdemeanors would remain on the master calendar system. 

 

In January 2006, the felony block pilot began.  In January 2007, two judges were added to the pilot as were first- and second-degree controlled substance cases. Later in 2007, felony block judges began to regularly take trials from other felony block judges having an overcrowded trial calendar.  Throughout the felony block pilot, judges met regularly with each other and with their justice partners (prosecutors, public defenders, and probation officers).

 

In the fall of 2008, the Hennepin County bench was scheduled to vote on whether to continue with a felony block or return the felony block cases (and the felony block judges) to the master calendar system.  In June 2008, the executive committee of the bench voted to delay a vote until the end of the year while a “civil/criminal calendaring workgroup” studied wider options for improving civil and criminal calendaring.

 

In October 2008, the Hennepin County District Court Research Division issued a report describing various performance measurements of felony block cases. With respect to the time to disposition measurement, the report found that the felony block cases were taking as long to resolve as they were under the master calendar system.  Contrary to what was predicted in the 1999 NCSC report, the time to disposition rates had not improved. However, with respect to the number of cases set for trial, and the percentage of those cases that actually went to trial, the report found a significant change. Under the master calendar system, 55 percent of the serious felony cases were set for trial, and 9 percent of those cases ended in a trial verdict.  Under the felony block pilot, only 33 perecent of the cases were set for trial, and 15 percent of those cases ended in a trial verdict.  As expected, under the felony block pilot, fewer cases were being set for trial, and a higher percentage of the cases set for trial were actually being tried.

 

For its October 2008 report, the Research Division conducted a survey among judges and lawyers who handled felony block cases during 2007. Almost all the judges (92 percent) and over half the lawyers (53 precent) believed that the blocking pilot increased accountability. No judge and only a few lawyers (7 percent) believed that the blocking pilot decreased accountability.  Approximately 75 percent of the judges and lawyers believed that blocking was the best method to handle serious felony cases, and approximately 70 percent of the judges and lawyers believed that the felony block should continue.

 

In November 2008, a majority of the Civil/Criminal Calendaring Committee recommended that the master calendar system of managing criminal cases be eliminated and replaced with a system involving blocking and/or teaming all criminal cases. 

 

On December 5, 2008, the Hennepin County bench held a half-day retreat to debate and vote on a resolution to eliminate the master calendar system in favor of a blocking and/or teaming system. Those in favor of the resolution argued that the benefits of early case management associated with blocking cases can and should apply to the remaining cases in the master calendar system (property/drug court felonies, gross misdemeanors, and misdemeanors). Those opposed to the resolution argued that the increased flexibility associated with a master calendar system warrants keeping the system for the high volume of low-level criminal cases. Others opposed to the resolution argued that felony block cases should go back on the master calendar system. By a vote of 37 to 21, the bench voted to replace the master calendar system with a system of blocking and/or teaming all criminal cases under a pilot to be approved by the Executive Committee, with any permanent change requiring approval by the entire bench.

 

The 2010 Hennepin County Criminal Calendaring Pilot

In May 2009, the Executive Committee of the Hennepin County bench approved a calendaring pilot to be phased in beginning in January 2010, and to be fully implemented by September 2010. Under the pilot, there will be no change in the number of judges allocated to the current court divisions.  Thus, in January 2010, when the pilot begins, judges will be allocated as follows: 1 chief judge, 1 signing judge, 1 probate/mental health judge, 9 family court judges, 8 juvenile court judges, 1 model drug/DWI court judge, 21 judges with civil blocks hearing some criminal cases, and 20 judges hearing criminal cases only.

 

Under the pilot, 13 of the 21 civil block judges will hear all suburban criminal cases, with a four-judge team assigned to each of the three suburban divisions, and one judge assigned as backup for all three divisions.  Cases will be blocked to an individual judge at either the first appearance or the first pretrial conference. Each judge will preside at suburban arraignment and pretrial conference calendars 13 weeks per year, leaving those judges with 39 weeks per year to try their civil block and suburban criminal cases. 

 

The remaining 8 of the 21 civil block judges will hear property/drug court cases.  These cases will be blocked to an individual judge at either the first appearance or the first pretrial conference. Like the suburban teams, each judge in the property/drug court team will preside at first appearance and pretrial conference calendars for 13 weeks per year, leaving those judges with 39 weeks per year to try their civil block and property/drug court cases.

 

Under the pilot, 18 of the 20 “criminal block” judges will be divided into three teams of six judges. Each of the 18 judges will preside at serious felony first appearance calendars three weeks per year. The cases on those calendars will be blocked to that judge at that time.  “Serious felony cases” means cases that had previously been specially assigned (homicide and first-degree criminal sexual conduct cases) and cases that had previously gone to the felony block. 

 

Each member of a criminal block team will preside over Minneapolis misdemeanor/gross misdemeanor first appearance and pretrial conference calendars approximately nine weeks per year. These cases will be blocked to a judge at either the first appearance or the first pretrial conference.  The Minneapolis misdemeanor/gross misdemeanor assignment for one team of judges will be limited to domestic violence cases.  The Minneapolis misdemeanor/gross misdemeanor assignment for the other two teams of judges will consist of community court and serious traffic cases. 

 

With 12 weeks of mandatory calendars, the 18 criminal block judges will have approximately 40 weeks per year to try their serious felony and Minneapolis misdemeanor/gross misdemeanor cases.  The two criminal block judges not assigned to a team will act as backup for the other criminal block judges.

 

The rotations within each team of criminal block judges could be varied to account for the inexperience of new judges. More experienced judges could do more than three felony first appearance calendars per year in exchange for a new judge doing more misdemeanor/gross misdemeanor calendars.

 

Judges within every team should assist each other with their calendars as needed. All teams should meet regularly with each other and with their justice partners to adopt and maintain policies and procedures within the team that will be as uniform as possible.  At these meetings, the partners should be encouraged to openly and honestly discuss problems of common concern. It is hoped that the court’s justice partners will divide their staffs into teams so that each justice partner team is assigned to only one criminal block team.

 

On January 4, 2010, the pilot will begin and in mid 2012, the bench will decide whether to make some of or the entire pilot permanent.  Performance measurements will guide the bench’s decision. 

 

Conclusion

During the past 25 years, the Hennepin County bench has moved an increasing number of cases from a master calendar system to a blocking system.  This movement began with civil cases and now includes family, CHIPS, and serious felony cases. The change to blocking systems appears to many judges and lawyers to have improved the quality of justice in these cases.  Whether blocking will improve the quality of justice in lower-level felony and misdemeanor/gross misdemeanor cases remains to be seen.  Certainly, victims, defendants, and communities affected by lowlevel criminal cases deserve the highest quality of justice we can provide.

 

 

1 Caseflow Management and Judge Assignments for Criminal Cases in Minnesota’s Fourth District Court (Hennepin County), Final Report, October 22, 1999, p. 3-4 (hereafter NCSC Report).

2 NCSC Report, p. 15-16.

3 NCSC Report, p. 17.

4 Although the Hennepin County disposition rates were well below state guidelines, they compare favorably to the disposition rates in the other Minnesota districts.  The state guidelines appear to be unrealistic.


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