Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Judicial Preparation for the Scheduling Conference in Civil Cases

By John DiMotto
When most people think about the work of a judge, they immediately picture a grey haired man wearing a black robe sitting on the bench acting snarly to everyone in sight. Nothing is further from the truth.
First, we are not all men.
Second, we are not all grey haired.
Third, generally speaking, we are not snarly to everyone in sight (just to some, sometimes).
Fourth, only part of what we do is done from the bench.
Much of our time is spent preparing for what we do on the bench. Just like students who must prepare for class, judges prepare for court. When we were elected, or appointed as the case may be, we did not become endowed with all knowledge. The law is like life - it has a high learning curve - and judges must work hard and prepare for each case in order to be ahead of the curve.
Every case is different and poses different issues and problems depending on the nature of the hearing. In civil cases, we start out with a scheduling conference, followed by motion hearings, followed by a final pretrial, followed by a motion in limine hearing to resolve loose evidentiary ends, followed by a court trial or jury trial, followed by motions after verdict Today, I would briefly like to discuss the scheduling conference.
The Scheduling Conference: Some might say this is a "nothing hearing" and there is no need to do any preparation - just sit down with the lawyers and put an order in place that will govern the course the case takes. I totally disagree. I believe that preparation for the scheduling conference is important. The involvement of the judge in the scheduling conference sets the tone for the case. When the lawyers sit down with me in chambers, I go over the facts of the case in detail and ask questions of the lawyers to clarify what the true issues are that must be addressed during the pendency of the action. This lets the lawyers know that I have taken the time to study and learn the case and that I expect them to be so invested in the case as well. As the judge goes, so goes the case. Having an understanding of the issues, and the lawyers (always an important consideration), I am able to put a scheduling order in place. This is an order that tells the lawyers what they must do and the time frame to do it in so the case will be properly prepared before it is set for trial. If the judge is fully prepared for the scheduling conference, it lets the lawyers know that the judge takes their case seriously and expects them to do the same. It raises the "professionalism" bar for both the bench and the bar.
In the final analysis, good preparation for the scheduling conference sets a positive tone for the ultimate resolution of the case in a manner that is fair to all involved.
In my next post, I will address the issue of motions and motion practice in the civil courts.

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