Judge Mike Fields of Harris County Criminal Court at Law Number Fourteen, has announced a new docket policy:
- At arraignment a defendant with counsel,will be reset for four months for motions;
- After the motions setting the defendant is set for a plea in thirty days or a trial in sixty.
That’s three—count ‘em, three—court appearances from the lawyer’s first appearance to trial of the case.
I think this is a great step forward. The prevailing policy in Harris County requires defendants to appear monthly or semimonthly for “court appearances”—not trials nor hearings—at which they don’t have to do anything but be on time and sit patiently until released.
In most Harris County courts, a working defendant has to miss a morning’s work for each court appearance, going to court just because some party hack in a robe likes the feeling of importance. (Too much? How about just because some petty tyrant in a black dress feels the need to exert a little more control over his little kingdom? No? Okay, just because some closet prosecutor with a little wooden hammer wants to pressure him to plead guilty? No? Can you do better?)
It has been my observation—and I won’t swear to its accuracy, much less its universality—that Judge Fields will hold the state’s feet to the fire at least as much as he will the defense’s. If he continues to do so, his new policy is a good thing. Fewer court appearances are better than more (face it, prosecutors: you want to see me as little as I want to see you), and six months is, in the vast majority of cases, plenty of time to prepare for trial if both the state and the defense are taking care of their to-dos. (The policy allows for exceptions where the parties are taking care of business but delay is forced by things out of their control.)
I’ll have to adopt a new way of practicing in Judge Fields’s court. I’ll have to have a little more calendar discipline, reminding myself in the long interregnum between my first appearance and the motion setting to communicate with the state and make sure I have everything I need to help my client decide whether to plead or go to trial. That’s okay with me—long stretches between court appearances are the norm in federal court, so I know I can get it done. Such discipline may be new to many of the state-court practitioners, but they can learn.
The new policy may improve the overall quality of lawyering in Judge Fields’s court another way: the $X-per-appearance lawyers will stop appearing there, which is a good start to drumming them out of the courthouse entirely. Will the $Y-for-a-plea-and-$Z-if-it’s-set-for-trial lawyers do their trial prep when it is meant to be done, in the beginning, rather than after getting their trial fees? The longer period before the go/no-go decision than after it ought to be an incentive.
I’ll have to ask Judge Fields what he means by “motions setting.” Does he mean that he will give us hearings on nondispositive motions to suppress—that is, motions to suppress when we haven’t already agreed on a plea if we lose? Generally Harris County judges will carry motions to suppress with trial, but Norm Silverman and I had a nondispositive motion to suppress hearing in the 185th recently. It took about an hour, and it worked to resolve two cases with minimal wasted court time and other resources. There’s no good reason not to have a hearing on motions to suppress if the defense wants a hearing. I hope Judge Fields will consider, while he’s trying something new, trying something else new.
How does this affect the other courts? If it works, I expect that other courts will adopt it. Maybe some of them will have the gumption to try something different. And when they see that several policies work well, maybe more of them will lighten up a bit and let their court coordinators and counsel work out scheduling matters.
(Now if Judge Fields and Judge Standley would just put aside hurt feelings and make up, together they could be a powerful force for good.)