Superior Court Judge James D. Smith | Photo courtesy of Sharon Anck

Judge James D. Smith: Case Loads, COVID & Corpus Linguistics

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Attorney at Law Magazine recently sat down with Judge James D. Smith of the Maricopa County Superior Court Civil Division in Arizona. He has been serving in the Arizona Superior Court for almost six years. We discussed the impact of COVID and heavy caseloads.

.AALM: Describe your style in the courtroom.

JDS: I’m more formal than many of my colleagues. That likely is because the bulk of my practice was in federal court. My pet peeve is wasting the jury’s time, so I push to keep trials on track; that means I expect lawyers always to be ready to proceed.

AALM: Describe your relationship with your staff.

JDS: I’m blessed to have skilled staff who have worked with me a long time. They understand my oddities! I’m able to rely on them to take the initiative and complete many things with little direction.  Hopefully, I stay out of their way.

AALM: What are the biggest concerns/types of cases presented in the Civil Court? 

JDS: Our greatest concern will be safely resuming in-person civil jury trials. We can’t allow all 21 civil judges to have jury trials the same day. We lack the space to have that many potential jurors and jurors in the building simultaneously while COVID remains a risk. In fact, having two trials simultaneously on the same floor seems difficult, if not impossible. We’ll need a lot of planning and coordination among judges and lawyers. Thankfully, we’re already designing safe solutions. But lawyers and clients may be disappointed with the pace at which we and other court systems resume in-person civil jury trials.

AALM: Do you have any advice for attorneys trying a case before your bench?

JDS:  Don’t spend time making your joint pretrial statement into an evocative piece. It is a nuts-and-bolts document to ensure we’re ready for trial and that I can manage the trial. Lawyers often spend countless hours writing detailed factual backgrounds, but I’m not their audience—the jury is. It is vastly more important to have exhibits, witness information, deposition designations, objections, and the like in order. Cooperate with opposing counsel to prepare the JPS, too. Don’t sandbag them with late information.

AALM:   What do you find most challenging about your work?

JDS: Managing the case volume. Each standard civil calendar has about 500 cases; the commercial court calendars have fewer, but they’re more complex. The numbers on family court are quite high, too. We also don’t have law clerks. Reading the briefs, reviewing cited cases, researching, and drafting decisions takes a lot of time. It makes for long nights and weekends when you’re in back-to-back jury trials.

AALM: Are there any changes in the legal community that you are excited about?

JDS: COVID accelerated the industry’s adoption of technology for the better. Lawyers and courts realized that video can replace many in-person hearings, which saves time and money for clients. Some in-person activities will return when the pandemic allows; for example, preparing key witnesses for deposition seems more effective in-person than via video. But oral arguments, preliminary injunction hearings, depositions, and the like seem destined to remain online.

On an unrelated topic, I’m excited to see how corpus linguistics may shape interpreting older legal texts. One disappointment is that some parties continue resisting or unnecessarily impeding predictive coding or technology assisted review for massive ESI productions. I hoped the profession would more completely embrace that technology to reduce expenses and speed document productions.

AALM: There is a lot of speculation about the faults in our justice system. As an insider on the front lines, tell us your perspective.

JDS: Access to justice is a true problem for lower-income people. That really is apparent in family court cases but also in some civil matters. We offer several tools to help self-represented people, but litigation is difficult to understand. I’m sure it is frustrating for self-represented litigants who are unfamiliar with disclosure, discovery, motion practice, and so forth.

AALM: Do you see areas for reform?

JDS: Our Supreme Court is blazing a trail on this front. It approved nonlawyer ownership/investment in law firms. Ideally, that will allow some capital to support new methods of delivering legal services. It also may lead to competition for large law firms, which hopefully benefits clients. Other recent rule changes let Legal Paraprofessionals aid clients more in litigation, focusing on family, administrative, debt collection, and landlord-tenant law.

AALM: What are the biggest issues?

JDS: Candidly, representing individuals in family and smaller civil matters is difficult. It can be tough to get paid, and some people with real legal needs can’t afford anything. Law school tuition is quite high and increases vastly outpace inflation (which academia must explain). We need to ensure it is financially viable to represent such clients while maintaining appropriate professional regulation.

Photo courtesy of Sharon Sojourns.

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