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Trial Court Structure and Performance: A Contemporary Reappraisal

NCJ Number
D B Rottman; W E Hewitt
Date Published
167 pages
This study investigated the contemporary value of court unification based on comparative research in the trial courts of nine counties in five States.
Specific research questions concerned whether consolidation of trial court benches and administrative support functions would improve trial court performance. Particular emphasis was placed on the way in which judges were assigned cases, distinctions between central and chamber support staff, and the chief judge position. Such aspects of court organization appeared to be the most resistant to benefits of court unification. Benefits of court unification varied widely by State because the extent to which court systems were unified was very weakly expressed in statewide court structure arrangements outlined in State constitutions, statutes, and court rules. Nonetheless, certain ways of structuring State court systems seemed to be associated with attaining high levels of court unification. Such unification in practice was found in both single-tier and two-level court systems. Court unification was not necessarily associated with higher levels of court performance. Other features of court organization contributed more to high performance, notably decision-making mechanisms and the approach taken to assign judges to domestic relations, juvenile, and high-volume routine cases. The authors conclude that court unification remains an essential tool for court reform but that its potential contribution is less than what can be gained from changing other aspects of how trial courts organize their work. Practical implications of the research findings are discussed. Appendixes contain additional information on the research questions, focus group themes by county, court performance, the social geography of trial courts, and court staffing. References, tables, and figures


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