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Judges Meetings Making the System Work Better

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We just finished a judges' meeting here. There are four of us here in the Western District of Texas, with residences in three different cities, so meeting often is not a real option. We try to meet at least quarterly, however.

What do judges talk about when they meet? In this district at least, we don't spend very much time talking about how we rule in cases, or telling war stories about the most recent, hilarious snafu committed by a lawyer in court. We don't compare notes on lawyers who appear in front of us. Mind you, this is not a matter of self-restraint. There simply isn't time.

So what do judges talk about when they meet, if not about these scintillating and sometimes scurrilous subjects? What else is there to talk about? Where the kids are going to college? Where the next vacation is planned for? Where to buy really snazzy robes?

You would be surprised. As a practicing lawyer, I thought a judge's job consisted of sitting in court, signing orders and crafting opinions. In truth, however, judges in most districts function much like the board of directors of a small company. Western Texas (that's the short-hand designation for our district used within the court system) is a mid-sized court, with filings in the neighborhood of 19,000 new cases per year, and with five different divisional officers scattered over a fair geographical distance. We have a total staff of about 90, and a total budget in the millions (not the tens of millions, however!). The overall operation, then, is about the size of a medium-sized company.

When the "board" meets, we find ourselves fully occupied with a combination of the grandiose and the mundane, the long-term direction of the court system and the problems of lawyers abusing the drop box for night filings. The clerk of court usually attends (much as the president of a company would), reporting on budget issues, staffing challenges, operational problems and the like. Shall we spend money on automation? Can we afford to? Who benefits if we do? What sorts of training obstacles will automation improvements pose for clerk's office personnel? Will there be opposition by the bar? By the circuit or the district court? By the Administrative Office? And are we automating for its own sake only, or can automation in fact survive a rigorous cost-benefit analysis?

It is the judges who must ultimately answer these questions, and the judges who must ultimately direct the resources and conduct of the court's administrative system regarding automation. And that is but one issue.

What has been especially gratifying to me is that the judges in our district, as different as we each are, seem to be committed to the same overarching ends. In our meetings, we do not endure the insufferable battling of egos that could so easily paralyze such a "board." We are, of course, fortunate that there are but four of us, and that we are all fairly close to the same age and experiential background. All of us practiced bankruptcy law before we took the bench, all of us were with firms of some size, and all of us were appointed within nearly the same time frame. So all of us are familiar with the dynamics of firm governance, as well as with how the bankruptcy system looks from the lawyer's side of the intake desk. That homogeneity is, of course, much more difficult to achieve in larger districts.

But I think there is another reason why we seem to work so well together. About two years ago, we embarked on a strategic planning process, one focused with the assistance of an outside facilitator and the support of the Administrative Office. All four of the judges were involved in the process from the outset, along with key members of the clerks' office and many representatives from the bar. Together, we came to realize that a bankruptcy court system does not exist for its own sake, or simply to ensure its continued survival, much less to ensure that the judges lead pampered lives of ease and privilege. The bankruptcy system (as with all other court systems) is first and foremost a service industry. It is succeeding when it offers its services to its constituents in an efficient fashion.

Over the last two years especially (though I think the process certainly began much earlier), the judges have embraced the importance of assuring that we have the best bankruptcy court system possible. That translates into many different subgoals, of course. We process our cases with quite a high degree of efficiency, and do so with far less staff then we ought to have (part of that is a result of the sense of teamwork that has grown up in the district). We strive to be a "user friendly" court system. We look for ways to reduce paperwork, discard outdated docketing procedures, reduce unnecessary administrative steps. We cross-train. We consult with the bar about what works and what doesn't work.

One particular manifestation of this commitment to offering a system that really works is the judges' honest effort to harmonize procedures, to achieve consistency. Every lawyer can appreciate just how counterintuitive this exercise must be for judges, for every lawyer knows how important it is to learn the peculiarities of how different judges like to run their courts. Like lawyers, judges too have egos. We are each proud of our little "improvements." One judge thinks that her pre-trial procedure for adversary proceedings is so remarkably effective at moving cases to settlement that she firmly believes the entire national system would be markedly streamlined if every other judge adopted it as well. Another judge is just as proud of the way he has minimized the need for actual hearings on chapter 13 matters. The lawyers in multi-judge districts must learn these quirks, judge by judge, and accommodate their practices accordingly.

Our judges are no different in this respect. We spent about an hour poring over the form of scheduling order each of us uses for our adversary proceedings, and each of us was well aware of the views of every other one of us around the table about what might constitute the "perfect" scheduling order. Yet, because of what I sensed was our commitment to create and maintain a bankruptcy court system that, first and foremost, works, we spent most of our energy looking for consensus. We did not agree on everything, but we focused on what we did agree on, striving to come up with a single form of scheduling order that could be used for all adversary proceedings, regardless of the judge. We spent the time because, by coming up with one form, the docketing clerks would not have to specially tailor four different "events" for docketing purposes (one for each judge), and the lawyers would not have to learn four different procedures for handling adversary matters (one for each judge). That effort helps to make the whole system more efficient, and I think all of us derived our sense of pride and accomplishment from coming up with one form that furthered that goal. That certainly seems to be more satisfying an exercise than spending the time "defending the citadel" of one's own personal predilections.

All in all, it's a part of the job of a judge that I guess I never really appreciated when I was a lawyer. Perhaps most lawyers are more perceptive than I was in the practice. But then again, perhaps I was not so different. Perhaps most lawyers don't have an appreciation for what really goes on at judges' meetings. If they did, however, it might help them see themselves as but another part of that bankruptcy system, one with an equally important duty to look after it, and to make sure that it really works.

Journal Date: 
Wednesday, October 1, 1997

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