Phoenix, Denver And Las Vegas Colorado's Judiciary: Handling Cases Faster, Better And Cheaper In Tough Economic Times

Friday, April 1, 2005 - 00:00

The Editor interviewsThe Honorable Mary J. Mullarkey. When Colorado Chief Justice Mullarkey stood before the members of the combined State House and Senate in January to deliver her biennial State of the Judiciary address, she spoke of challenges, setting priorities, redefining business practices, determination and a keen awareness of the people her courts serve. She described a new reality which has become business as usual in courts today. Capsulizing this reality, she explained, "We are dancing as fast as we can."

Editor: How is the Colorado judiciary coping with an ever increasing caseload while confronting an ongoing budget crisis?

Mullarkey: In coping with our new reality, we have tried to follow two principles. One is to give our judges and employees the tools and training to do their jobs. The other is to give priority to cases that are time sensitive or involve the most vulnerable people. If we don't have time to do all the cases, we must do those cases first.

A prime example of high priority cases are those involving abused and neglected children. We have also looked for ways to handle cases cheaper, better and faster.

We aim to reduce unnecessary costs and delay while getting better results for the litigants. In other words, we have invented some new steps to keep up with the music.

Editor: What experiences in your background best prepared you for your public service as Colorado's chief justice?

Mullarkey: I have extensive experience with Colorado state government and have held various supervisory and management positions since the mid-1970s. However, probably nothing could have prepared me for coping with the judicial branch's share of the state's ongoing budget crisis.

Editor: Please tell our readers about the tools and training that are available to judges and employees in the Colorado judiciary.

Mullarkey: With about 3,000 full- and part-time employees and 256 judges statewide, our training needs are extensive and ongoing. We must train employees to handle high volumes of sensitive data every day, to operate a complex computer system, and to serve the public courteously and efficiently. Judges must maintain and enhance their knowledge of substantive law and learn the best techniques for handling different kinds of cases. Since losing our money earmarked for training, we have scrambled to fund training through grants and user fees. Judges have paid registration fees and borne their own expenses for the last two judicial conferences.

Editor: How is technology helping the Colorado courts to move their dockets along quickly?

Mullarkey: Our judiciary has earned national recognition for its advances in technology. For example, the courts and the Colorado Bureau of Investigation work closely together to match arrest records and court dispositions. The current disposition rate of over 90 percent far exceeds the national average of 30 percent. We continue working hard to enhance this and our other systems that are critical to case processing and public safety.

Colorado has also been a leader in the area of electronic filing, which allows attorneys to file their court pleadings through the Internet rather than by coming to the courthouse. The benefits of electronic filing to the courts, litigants and their attorneys are clear.

A voluntary system for the most part, the value of electronic filing can be seen in the fact that it is used in 70 percent of the district court civil cases. Colorado leads the nation by having the only statewide court system that has electronic filing capabilities in all of its general jurisdiction civil, domestic relations, probate and water cases. No other state can match that.

Our ultimate goal is to have a "paper-on-demand" system where paper would be produced only when needed. On a pilot project basis, several courts, such as the Denver Probate Court, Water Division 3, and courts in Adams, Alamosa, Arapahoe, Broomfield, Boulder, Conejos, Costilla, El Paso, Mineral, Rio Grande, Saguache, Summit, Teller and Weld counties have already made e-filing mandatory. The time savings and storage space savings are already impressive and bound to increase over time.

A full list of our mandatory e-file courts is available at http://www.courts.state.co.us/iis/mandatoryefilects.pdf.

Demonstrating other areas where technology has played a major role, we now have better, more accurate lists for summoning prospective jurors. We exchange data electronically with executive agencies. The Department of Corrections shares data electronically with the courts to track restitution paid by inmates. We will be working with the Department of Human Services to exchange electronic data on child welfare and child support services.

Editor:Please give an overview of the Colorado Supreme Court's docket.

Mullarkey: The Supreme Court receives approximately 1,400 to 1,500 new case filings each year and issues written opinions in about 100 cases. The new case filings typically include 900 petitions for certiorari, most involving review of Court of Appeals cases but some involving County Court decisions. The number of petitions for original proceedings has remained relatively constant at 300 per year and the court writes opinions on 10-12 original proceedings per year. In the last 20 years, the Supreme Court's workload has increased by 40 percent. We don't track the cases by subject matter, but my impression is that the number of certiorari petitions in civil cases tends to go up in good economic times and down in bad.

Editor: What is the percentage of criminal, civil, family court and other types of cases?

The Court of Appeals receives and disposes of 2,600 cases per year. Its caseload is 40 percent criminal, 42 percent civil, 12 percent workers' compensation, and 6 percent juvenile and administrative appeals. Its 16 judges author 1,600 cases per year, 16 percent of which are published.

The District Court filings have risen by one-third over the past decade to 177,000 cases in the last fiscal year. Civil case filings have increased from 18 percent to 29 percent of the total. There has been a smaller increase in criminal cases from 21 percent to 24 percent. The percentage of mental health and probate filings has stayed constant and the percentages of juvenile and domestic cases have dropped.

County Court filings totaled 514,000 in 2004. Civil filings have increased from 26 percent to 32 percent since 1995.

Editor: What recommendations do you have for corporate counsel to reduce unnecessary costs and get better results in their cases before the Colorado courts?

Mullarkey: Simplification seems to be the key to improving the processing and outcomes in cases. It is worth the time and effort it takes to express complex ideas in simple terms and to reduce your theories of the case to the ones that really matter. Issues that can be settled should be settled as early as possible so that the judge can focus on resolving the important issues.

Editor: Some other states have established specialized business courts. Is there an interest in Colorado's business community and judiciary in establishing specialized business courts?

Mullarkey: I have looked at the approaches taken by New York, California and New Jersey to better managing business cases. For two reasons, I do not favor the establishment of specialized business courts in Colorado. First, we do not have the resources or the number of cases to justify such courts. Second, specialized courts make it very difficult to manage the court system because we lose the ability to move resources and personnel to the areas that most need them.

Nevertheless, I am interested in finding better ways to handle business cases. I have asked Chief Judge James Hiatt of Fort Collins and his committee on caseflow leadership to examine the issues and make recommendations. Perhaps, the case facilitator model used so successfully in family cases could work in business cases as well.

Editor: Please tell our readers about the simplified litigation procedures adopted in Colorado's new Rule 16.1.

Mullarkey: Rule 16.1 seems to be gaining widespread acceptance. Before we adopted the rule, it was tested by Judge Chris Munch in the Jefferson County District Court and Chief Judge Harlan Bockman in the Adams County District Court. Analysis of their cases showed that the cases were resolved more quickly and less expensively than cases in a control group.

Information regarding Rule 16.1 is available online: http://www.courts.state.co.us/chs/court/forms/districtcivil/simplifiedprocedure.htm.

Editor: Please tell our readers about Colorado's efforts to make jury duty more efficient.

Mullarkey: As well as improving the lists for summoning prospective jurors, the process for reporting for jury duty and being excused from jury service has been streamlined. In most jurisdictions, jurors can refer to websites for juror reporting information in addition to the traditional pre-recorded phone messages. Postponement and disqualification requests can also be filed online in many of our courts. Once in the courtroom, jurors are treated differently from the way they were in the past. No longer are jurors expected to sit passively and remember days or weeks of testimony without taking notes. Jurors receive notebooks with the relevant information. Jurors are now able to take notes and can submit questions to the judge to ask witnesses in many civil and criminal cases as well.

Editor: Thank you, your honor, for sharing your insights with us. Where can our readers find a copy of your full report on the State of the Judiciary?

Mullarkey: I presented my report to Colorado's 65th General Assembly on January 14, 2005. It is available on our state courts' website at http://www.courts.state.co.us/supct/justices/2005 soj.pdf .