Order in the Court

This week reminded me of one of the aspects of litigation that many laypeople are unfamiliar with–and often frustrated by–how and when a case gets called to trial.

This week I had three possible trials scheduled.  One was in Superior Court and the other two in District Court.

The case in Superior Court settled just toward the end of last week.  One of the District Court cases is hopefully going to settle and so the attorneys agreed to have it continued.  The other case was on the list of possible trials.

First, a case has to get on the list for that week.  There are a limited number of jury sessions per year in Superior Court and much fewer in District Court.  For Superior Court, there is something called a “pretrial” calendar where all of the attorneys show up and ask the judge setting the calendar for the next few months for a particular date.  If the attorneys can agree, then usually the judge will set the trial for that date, unless there are other considerations (age of the case, judge needs to excuse him/herself because of a conflict).  For district court, there is no such pretrial session–cases end up on the docket as they mature (and often only after there has been arbitration).  A list is created (“the docket”)

So, once we get to the week of trial, the judge calls the list of possible trials on Monday morning.  Sometimes cases will settle “on the courthouse steps” and the attorneys inform the court and that case is taken off the list.  Sometimes a witness or party is unavailable and the attorneys agree to ask for a continuance.  Sometimes the case is close to settling and the parties don’t want to have a trial just yet.  And there is still the possibility that the judge will have a conflict because he/she knows one of the parties.  Plus, the attorneys may have other trials in other courts.  There’s a hierarchy of priority that certain cases in certain courts get.  For instance, if an attorney has a capital murder case in one court the same week as a contract dispute over $5,000 in another court–you can guess which one gets priority.

The cases on the list will be called in order (almost always by age of the case computed as days since filing) and the ones that remain will be heard in that order, usually starting Monday afternoon when the jury pool arrives.

Most of the time.

Some cases may be “peremptorily set” as the first case for that week by agreement between the attorneys and upon application to the court.  A peremptory setting is often given in a case where one or more of the witnesses is from out of town and needs a little more predictability than “your case will be heard some time this week.”  Sometimes a complicated or lengthy trial will be peremptorily set so that the court can devote the week to putting the case to rest.

If your case isn’t first, you are on “standby” with the court and the attorneys are required to keep in touch with the clerk to see the status of the cases in front of them.  Clerks and trial court administrators go beyond the call of duty and often keep the attorneys informed.  You don’t have to wait at the courthouse–thank goodness–but you do have to wait and see if your case will be called that week.

Of course, weather and illness can intervene.  This week, the jury session was stalled because of bad weather early in the week.  One of the attorneys was unavailable to start on Monday, the court was closed for part of Tuesday, and so the jury wasn’t selected until Wednesday afternoon!

Now, here’s the part that really frustrates most folks.  Trial court sessions are one week long.  A new session starts the next week (if one is held the next week).  That means that if your case is on the docket for that week and it isn’t reached, your case is NOT heard the next week.  It may not be on the list again for several weeks…or months.  But at least it will move up the list for the next Monday morning in the future when it all starts over again.

So that, my friends, is the “Order in the Court.”


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