'Assembly-line justice' should not replace the human touch

Issue May 2005 By Kathleen M. O'Donnell

The word "efficiency" has a positive connotation. To be efficient, according to Webster's dictionary, is "to give a relatively high output of work." This would seem to be a good thing.

Certainly, employers want their workers to be efficient and businesses strive to be described as "efficient" by their customers. Henry Ford is lauded as a true revolutionary for his invention of the assembly line. Clearly, his innovation modernized factory work in the early 20th century in a manner similar to the way in which the invention of the Wang word processor revolutionized office work in the 1980s.

Over the last decade, our courts have been challenged to be more efficient and more user friendly. Court administrators deserve credit for developing and imposing time standards under which each trial court department is to operate. Cases should not be allowed to languish in the court system for years. The timing of the finalization of disputes in court must be more predictable for litigants.

By and large, time standards have worked - they have forced lawyers to become more disciplined in the way in which they handle cases in suit. Some have suggested that the next logical step is to impose time standards on judges so that litigants and their lawyers will not have to wait weeks, months and sometimes years for judicial decisions. Clearly, some judges also need discipline from a greater authority to be imposed upon them.

The desire to move cases efficiently through our judicial system cannot become what the system is about, however. Assembly-line justice is not something for which we should strive. Our goal at all times must be to see that justice is done and that all parties are treated fairly. The MBA testified recently against a legislative proposal to amend the Massachusetts Constitution to allow for the election of judges. Our opposition was based upon our commitment to an independent judiciary consisting of judges appointed because of their intellect and their legal experience, not because of their political acumen, their fund-raising prowess or their administrative skills.

Our highly qualified judiciary must be trusted to determine when cases should move quickly through the system in accordance with the time standards and when justice must prevail over efficiency. Lawyers must be trusted when they present valid reasons why additional time is needed on a particular case. Also, the courts must recognize that time standards simply are not appropriate in some cases. Domestic relations cases and many employment cases are highly emotionally charged. Often, it will serve those involved and the system to let time pass so that emotions calm down and the case can then be viewed in a more fact-driven way. Divorce cases should not be subject to the time standards. As young lawyers, we are trained to ask divorce clients if they have gone to counseling and whether they are really sure the marriage is over. It would seem to be against public policy for our court system to move a divorce case through the process quickly when in some instances divorce complaints are filed in a moment of anger.

Judges should not be evaluated based primarily upon the number of cases they close. There will never be computer software that will evaluate cases in the way in which an experienced judge does. The human touch must always remain a major component in our system of justice.

The issue must always be: Was justice served?

I leave you with two quotations on "efficiency":

"Efficiency is intelligent laziness."

- David Dunham

"The only thing that saves us from bureaucracy is inefficiency. An efficient bureaucracy is the greatest threat of liberty!"

- Eugene McCarthy

Please let me know if I am starting to sound like Andy Rooney.