I once heard a private attorney say, “In the halls of justice, the only justice occurs in the halls.” That may be because our local county courthouse and jail in Kennewick, Washington, is called the Benton County Justice Center. I think “justice” is a glorious word, but it can seem like the fabled pot of gold at the end of a rainbow. It seems like you can reach out and grab it, but you never quite get there. I’ve thought about that quite a bit in the ensuing years, and have seen the phrase ring fairly true. If you make it to a jury of your peers, odds are unlikely to be “ever in your favor”.
That’s not to say that justice doesn’t ever happen inside the courtroom, but, by and large, most of the justice occurs when the parties enter into an agreement before submitting their case to judge or jury. There are at least three reasons for this: the parties know their case inside and out, something you could never really expect from a judge or jury; both plaintiffs and defendants dislike uncertainty and would rather settle if at all possible; and the court system is overloaded by the sheer volume of cases that end up in its halls.
Knowing your case
By the time a case reaches trial, the parties may have spent hundreds or thousands of hours on the details of the case. This time is spent interviewing witnesses, reviewing discovery or general information about the case, preparing and responding to motions, and attending hearings. It all adds up. Since it typically takes 18 months for a case to reach a jury after the initial filing of the complaint (or information), a lot of time is spent getting to know the various legal issues. On the other hand, a judge or jury might spend 10’s of hours on a case.
Heads or tails, you lose
Uncertainty is a scary word for most people involved in litigation. Defendants might wonder whether they will be spending a month or a year in jail. Plaintiffs might wonder if the jury will award nothing or a million dollars. Insurance companies might be wondering the same thing. (In fact, a local law firm recently did see a multi-million-dollar verdict in their client’s favor.) Judges wonder how long the case will last, how the jury will do, whether the case will be appealed, and so on. Juries might wonder who’s going to take care of their family or job while they are in trial. At the end of the day, it can often feel like a coin toss where you lose either way.
Overloaded court system
Since the Covid-19 pandemic, court systems across the country saw an increase in the backlog of cases set for trial. In some parts, the right to trial was suspended for over a year. Pending cases in some cities nearly doubled over the course of two years. And that was after many law enforcement agencies opted to pursue charges less often than they normally would. Three years after the beginning of the pandemic, the situation is hardly better and many people are opting out of a full trial.
This is all to say that your right to trial may not be what you expect or want it to be. I want the Benton County Justice Center to be a place of justice, and I’ve seen that happen. But I’ve also seen much of the justice happen in the halls. What has your experience with the “Justice Center” been? Let us know in the comments below.