Last week, in partnership with the National Association for Court Management and supported by the State Justice Institute, the Justice Programs Office, Right to Counsel team held a meeting with judges and court administrators on how to enhance caseflow management to ensure effective assistance of counsel. I was excited to convene this passionate group of court leaders and hear what they had to say on the topics of caseflow management and effective assistance of counsel, yet was unsure how the conversation would go. I wasn’t completely convinced that enough people would find enough to talk about and stay engaged in over the two days, or if everyone would buy into this exploration of the tension between processing cases quickly while simultaneously allowing for and encouraging effective assistance of counsel. Well, let me tell you—I was proved wrong—the sustained energy, thoughtfulness, and critical thinking that manifested during the meeting and extended into an evening reception was beyond my highest expectations.
Multiple participants stated how they previously attended meetings titled “Enhancing Caseflow Management ‘Period,’” or meetings that only referenced “Effective Assistance of Counsel,” but never had they attended a meeting that combined the two: “Enhancing Caseflow Management to Ensure Effective Assistance of Counsel.” Another attendee acknowledged that when he received the invitation and saw the meeting title, he immediately thought of conflict and was encouraged to learn more. But why are these two essential court functions perceived to be in conflict with each other?
Courts were established to protect our individual rights. Since their inception, court caseloads have ballooned. Managing and resolving cases, moving them along through the court system promptly, is essential to maintaining workload balance and the constitutional right to a speedy trial; however, this cannot, and does not, mean that the constitutional right to counsel and quality of justice should be compromised. Rather, by ensuring effective assistance of counsel and quality defense, courts can increase their efficiency—resolving cases appropriately and in a timely manner, enhancing legitimacy and trust in the court process and the justice system, and protecting our individual rights and public safety. Ensuring effective assistance of counsel is not about slowing the wheels of justice and derailing caseflow management, but rather it’s about shifting our mindset and altering our practices to ensure justice is met and cases are resolved appropriately.
Since we all become accustomed to our day-to-day routines, sometimes it requires an out-of-office meeting to stop, reflect, and regroup. We can then return to our offices reinvigorated with a new mindset to put into practice. I am beyond encouraged by the passion and excitement I witnessed last week in DC by the judges and court administrators in attendance. I cannot wait to build on that enthusiasm, help spread the energy to other jurisdictions across the nation, and establish a framework for all courts to use to enhance caseflow management by ensuring effective assistance of counsel.
Over the next few months, our team at JPO will be creating a white paper based on the meeting that lays out this framework. We look forward to helping courts implement and build on the recommendations that will be included. Stay tuned!