Comparing State Courts: Trials and Tribulations

Part of what I do at work is answering questions.
Sometimes that’s easy to do and sometimes it’s not. But one
of the hardest things to do is to do a comparison of U.S.
state courts statistics.

Each of the 50 states, the District of Columbia, and
Puerto Rico has its own court system. Each, as it should, is
tailored to the special needs of its area. New York, being
one of the older systems around, has town and village justice
courts, city courts, district courts, surrogates’ court (no,
I don’t know what types of cases it hears), county courts,
and several other types of courts. And unlike any another
state that I know of, New York calls it courts of general
jurisdiction its Supreme Court (which is why, when you watch
“Law and Order” on TV, most cases are tried in that court)
and what everyone else calls their Supreme Court, New York
calls Courts of Appeal.

As you get to newer states, like Alaska or Hawai’i, you
see much more streamlined court structures. Both have only
four (courts of limited, general, intermediate appeal, and
last resort) levels.

Within each court, are judges. But when is a judge not a
judge? When you have chancellors, commissioners, domestic
relations commissioners, domestic court commissioners,
magistrates, masters, marital masters, masters-in-equity, or

So when I am asked a seemingly straight forward question
like “What is the average caseload of a judge of general
jurisdiction across America?” I quake in fear and loathing
knowing I will be treading across dangerous ground. In order
to answer such a question, I need to know the total caseload
and the total number of judges.

The first problem is defining what is caseload? Do you
want the number of cases filed, terminated, or pending? Or do
you want the number pending plus the number filed, minus the
terminated? Or do you want just filed minus terminated? Once
you decide that, you have to define what you mean by
terminated. Does that mean a case has come to verdict? Or do
you include those who have pled guilty before or during a
trial? What happens if the case is appealed? Is the original
case terminated but a new case is opened?

But wait, as they say on late night TV commercials,
there’s more. What is a judge? As noted earlier, not all
cases are heard by what is termed a judge. Do you include
cases heard by chancellors but not masters? Or magistrates
but not referees? All? None?

Very quickly, trying to answer the simple question posed
earlier becomes a nightmare of footnotes because each state
does its job in a different way so trying to compare
statistics across states can become almost meaningless.

And yet. Comparisons to other states, or in this case
national statistics, are potentially powerful tools for,
among other things, managing a courts system, for determining
and justifying the need for additional resources, and for
planning. So, we do such comparisons. Just remember, when you
do it, that you are treading on shaky ground. And include a
lot of footnotes.



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