Judicial Efficiency


“Judicial efficiency” is a term that is often thrown about in courtrooms and pleadings. The concept, in a nutshell, is that where justice can be served in a manner that does not waste the court’s time and resources, that is the proper course of action.

Judicial efficiency is often promoted through the use of written arguments and motions over oral arguments. Instead of a judge sitting through live witness testimony and argument, a packet of information is written up that includes each side’s sworn witness statements (called affidavits or declarations) and legal arguments with case citations. The judge and her clerks may then reference each party’s legal citations, conduct additional research if necessary, and prepare a written decision. The practice of law is thus heavily dependent upon written documents that shuttle to and from the court, such as:

Requests for Default Judgment

When you file a complaint and the defendant fails to answer, it would be judicially inefficient to force you to nonetheless present your evidence to the judge in trial-form (jury, bailiff, live witness testimony, etc.). Instead, most counties in California allow a written document called a Request for Entry of Default to be filed, asking the court to find that the defendant has defaulted on his obligation to file a response to your complaint. Once entered, you may gather up your evidence in the form of written declarations and briefed argument and present the packet of paper (called a Request for Default Judgment) to the judge or court clerk to request that judgment be entered against the defendant.

Many times, the judge or court clerk will have a question about a certain piece of evidence or monetary calculation in the Request for Default Judgment. In that case, the Request will be denied and sent back to your attorney’s office. Your attorney will supply the requested information and resubmit the Request to the court. This process may take a couple of back and forth rounds to complete. Depending on how busy the particular court department is, it could be several months until a judgment is finally entered.

Clients often feel disheartened or disappointed when a Request is denied. However, it is important to remember that this method promotes efficiency – both for the judiciary and the client. While it is true that some of the questions that result in an initial denial could have been answered quickly if before the judge in person, the process of scheduling a trial-like hearing to prove one’s case is anything but quick. Often courts do not have free slots on their calendars for several months. Proving one’s case in person would require witness attendance and hours of attorney time to prepare and appear before the judge. In contrast, it is typically a fairly quick process (equivalent to one day’s work or less) to prepare the Request documents.

Tentative Rulings

Motions are documented requests to the court. Typically, the moving party submits a brief with written evidence and citation to case law. The opposing party then is given an opportunity to write an opposing brief. The moving party follows up with a final reply brief. A hearing is scheduled for oral argument before the court by each party’s attorney. Many counties, however, will issue a tentative ruling the day or so before the scheduled hearing.

The tentative ruling is a draft of how the court intends to rule on the case. In Fresno County, the tentative ruling is posted on the court website or sent to each party’s attorney. If either party is unhappy with the court’s ruling and believes they can convince the court to alter its ruling, that party may call in to advise that they intend to appear at the hearing and deliver oral argument. If neither party calls in, then the tentative ruling becomes the order of the court.

Sometimes clients feel that the tentative ruling process deprives them of their day in court. They would like their attorney to have the opportunity to appear in person before the judge and argue the case. However, the parties’ written motion paperwork sets forth each party’s argument in detail, with supporting evidence and legal citation. The judge reviews those arguments in detail before issuing a tentative ruling. Almost always additional oral argument does not change the judge’s opinion. Unless the tentative ruling reveals that the judge has made a material mistake regarding the facts of the case or applicable law, there is typically no benefit to further argument.

The system of tentative rulings promotes efficiency for the client. There is no sense in paying your attorney to travel to and argue before the judge if doing so would make no difference to the outcome of the motion. And it promotes judicial efficiency. If a judge has, say, 30 cases scheduled for argument on a particular day and is able to dispose of half of them via tentative ruling, then the length of time to complete the argument docket for the day will be significantly reduced.

Motions in Limine

The typical “smoking gun” evidence portrayed in television and movies is not a realistic portrayal of the American justice system. To the greatest extent possible, judges like to have issues of fact and law resolved well before trial begins. To that end, squabbles that are likely to come up during the trial (whether a particular piece of evidence will be admissible or a certain witness allowed to testify, etc.) must be written up and presented to the judge for resolution in the weeks prior to trial.

Clients sometimes are confused about why their attorney is spending time drafting motions for disputes that have not yet even occurred. Why should a client pay for their attorney to draft a lengthy brief when they could simply object to the witness or evidence during the trial? The answer lies in judicial efficiency. If a certain piece of evidence or testimony is uttered before the jury that is so inappropriate and damaging that it calls into question the ability of the jury to render a fair decision in the case, a mistrial may be called. Having to start trial from scratch is not a good use of the judge’s or the parties’ time and resources. Even when the dispute is not so extreme, however, trials are most efficient when they can proceed without delay. Jurors are called and the courtroom is staffed with bailiff, court reporter, etc. If the trial must come to a halt to allow the parties to present argument about a certain bit of evidence, this slows down the process and harms efficiency.