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November 2006

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This article is in the news archives --- for current news go to the Third Branch News.


Courtroom Study To Collect Array of Information

Nationwide, the federal Judiciary occupies over 500 buildings that contain at least one courtroom. At Congress’ request, the Judiciary will document how often those courtrooms are in use, and this month court staff begin training on how to record that data.

“The presumption has been that courtrooms are over-built,” said Judge John R. Tunheim (D. Minn.), chair of the Judicial Conference Committee on Court Administration and Case Management (CACM). “But that presumption relies on anecdotal information from random checks to see which courtrooms are dark. There’s really no good, accurate data available.”

The study won’t collect information on all courtrooms, just a statistical sample large enough to allow generalizations on how courtrooms are commonly used, according to Donna Stienstra, senior research associate at the Federal Judicial Center (FJC). Stienstra, along with senior research associate Pat Lombard, is directing the project.

The FJC, asked by the CACM to do the study, will collect data in 27 districts. Each district will record information about events that actually occur or are scheduled to occur during a 3-month period. Half of the courts will record data during Wave 1—January 15 through April 15, 2007—and the other half will record data during Wave 2—April 16 through July 15, 2007.

“We asked the FJC to perform the study,” said Tunheim, “because they have a deep understanding of the Judiciary and the work we do, the institutional expertise to design a study to get accurate data—and no preconceived ideas on what the data will show.”

Twenty-four districts were selected through a computerized random draw; the sample includes a district from each circuit except the District of Columbia.

“Large, medium and small district courts, with different facilities and caseload demands are represented,” said Lombard. Bankruptcy courts and courts of appeals are not part of the study.

Three additional districts, including Tunheim’s, were selected as case study districts because of unusual circumstances in the district that bear on the question of courtroom use. Two courts have arrangements for the sharing of courtrooms because of courthouse renovation work, and the other shares courtrooms by long-standing tradition.

The question of courtroom use was raised by Congressman Bill Shuster (R-PA), chair of the House Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure, Subcommittee on Economic Development, Public Buildings and Emergency Management, during a hearing last year on the Judiciary’s ability to pay for current and future space needs. A space utilization policy had been suggested as a way to reduce courts’ space requirements, but to date, neither the Judiciary nor Congress has had comprehensive data available for policy and planning purposes.

“The study has been designed to collect accurate, detailed information about all activity that occurs in courtrooms,” said Stienstra.

Three types of time-based data about courtrooms will be collected: data on the actual use of courtrooms, which is an objective measure of the time a courtroom is actually occupied by anyone, for any reason, including use of the courtroom for ceremonies, educational outreach and proceedings held by state court judges; data about proceedings or ceremonies that might be held in a courtroom, but are held elsewhere, such as pretrial conferences in a judge’s chambers or naturalization ceremonies in a jury assembly room; and data on the scheduling of events, whether they occur or not, such as a trial that is cancelled because of a settlement or plea agreement. Though a settlement or plea may leave a courtroom empty and thus technically not in use, the vacated time slot may have occurred too late for the courtroom to be available for other proceedings. Time spent in courtrooms will be collected for active district judges, senior district judges, magistrate judges and visiting judges, and for official use by people such as attorneys and court staff.

Software based on the Lotus Notes application has been developed by the FJC to record the data. Starting in November 2006, the FJC is conducting on-site training of court staff on how to collect and enter the information using the software.

Procedures will be in place to ensure data quality. “We’ll monitor data on a daily basis,” said Lombard, “to verify and to look for inconsistencies. We’ll compare study data against routinely collected court data. We’re also hiring independent, unidentified data collectors to record courtroom use in the study districts at random times and locations.”

In addition to information on the use and scheduling of courtroom space, every district and magistrate judge in all 94 district courts will receive a questionnaire asking about the role courtrooms play in managing their caseloads. The questionnaire also will seek judges’ views on how changes to current courtroom use policy might affect caseload management.

Project directors Stienstra and Lombard expect to present an interim report on the study’s findings to CACM by the fall of 2007, followed by a final report in the spring of 2008.

Districts Selected for the Courtroom Use Study

Districts Recording Data from January 15 – April 15, 2007

California Northern
Georgia Northern
Illinois Northern
Iowa Southern
Minnesota (case study)
Mississippi Northern
New York Western
Oklahoma Western
Wisconsin Eastern
Districts Recording Data from
April 16 – July 15, 2007

Alabama Middle
California Central
California Southern
Florida Southern
Louisiana Eastern
New York Southern (case study)
Pennsylvania Western
Rhode Island
South Dakota (case study)
Tennessee Eastern
Texas Western
Virginia Eastern
Wisconsin Western