February 1, 2010
CRIMINAL TRIAL SCHEDULING AND DISCLOSURE PROCEDURES
By: Jeanne Hayes, Legislative Fellow
You asked about criminal trial scheduling procedures and the Judicial Branch's disclosure of procedures to the public on its website.
The U.S. and Connecticut constitutions, state statutes, and court rules (Connecticut Practice Book) govern the scheduling of criminal trials. As a general rule, judges have wide latitude to schedule criminal hearings and trials in a manner that increases efficiency and ensures the speedy disposition of cases. Practice Book rules govern scheduling procedures for pleas, continuances, trials, and trial lists, and give judges considerable discretion. According to Judicial Branch liaison Deborah Fuller, the Judicial Branch does not publish scheduling procedures on its website because of the discretion involved.
Courts must keep updated dockets that include scheduled hearing information and must make them available to the public. Courts are not required to give the public any other form of notice regarding scheduling. Dockets are available on the Connecticut Judicial Branch Website and are searchable by docket number, courthouse, and defendant's name.
The U.S. and Connecticut constitutions, state statutes, and Connecticut Practice Book govern the scheduling of criminal trials. The Sixth Amendment of the United States Constitution, applicable to the states through the Fourteenth Amendment, guarantees an accused the right to a speedy and public trial, as does Article I, § 8 of the Connecticut Constitution. Statutes vest in Superior Court judges the power to make procedural rules necessary to ensure a speedy trial (CGS § 54-82m). Statutes also require that courts try defendants who have entered not guilty pleas within 12 months of the filing date of the information or indictment or the date of arrest, whichever is later. If a defendant has been continuously incarcerated pending trial, then the trial must start within eight months from the information filing date or date of the arrest, whichever is later. The 12 and eight-month periods may be suspended where there is a delay. Examples of delays that toll the statutory periods include the unavailability of the defendant or counsel, mental incompetence, and exceptional circumstances (Conn. Practice Book § 43-40).
Practice Book §§ 44-11 to 44-17 deal more specifically with trial scheduling. A clerk must assign a number to a criminal case upon the return of an indictment or summons and enter it on the criminal docket (Conn. Practice Book § 44-11). The clerk must periodically file a written update for the judge on the status of each pending case. It is the clerk's responsibility to consult with the prosecuting authority and defense counsel regarding matters of scheduling and to advise the judge of any factors affecting the movement of cases. Ultimately, judges have the power, subject to statutory requirements, to control the time and scheduling of proceedings in criminal cases (Conn. Practice Book § 44-12).
The Practice Book provides that judges should promptly assign cases for arraignments, motions, and other preliminary proceedings to ensure the speedy disposition of cases (Conn. Practice Book § 44-13). Section 44-13 also states that ordinarily continuances for preliminary proceedings cannot exceed two weeks. This provision is modeled after the American Bar Association Standards, which allow continuances upon a showing of good cause, taking into account the request or consent of the prosecution or defense, as well as the public interest in prompt disposition of cases (ABA Standards, Speedy Trial, 1.3). In addition, judges should assign each case pending a plea within two weeks after it is placed on the list of pending cases unless the judge orders otherwise (Conn. Practice Book § 44-14). Where possible, when a defendant enters a not guilty plea, a judge must assign a date for trial and must advise all parties to prepare for the trial date. If setting a date is not possible, the judge must place the case on the clerk's trial list of pending cases; cases must be placed on the trial list in the order in which the not guilty pleas were entered (Conn. Practice Book § 44-15).
A judge has great flexibility when scheduling cases from the trial list. A judge may schedule them to be tried in the order in which they are listed or he or she may give priority trial dates to cases where: (1) a defendant is in custody for lack of a bond, (2) the judge has granted a motion for a speedy trial, or (3) the judge reasonably believes that the pretrial liberty interest of the defendant poses unusual risks (Conn. Practice Book § 44-16). A judge must not schedule more cases on a trial date than he or she reasonably expects to be able to hear (Conn. Practice Book § 44-16). For cases on the trial list, as well as those not on the trial list, a judge may schedule, upon a party's motion and a showing of good cause, a trial date prior to the date it would originally have been assigned (Conn. Practice Book § 44-17). According to Judicial Branch liaison Deborah Fuller, the Connecticut Judicial Branch does not publish rules relating to scheduling on its website or elsewhere because of the judicial discretion involved.
DISCLOSURE OF TRIAL SCHEDULE
Courts must keep updated dockets that include scheduled hearings and make them available to the public. Courts are not required to give the public any other form of notice regarding scheduled hearings. A court docket is a list of every case before a court that contains case numbers, the parties' names, filings, and dates of past and future proceedings.
The Second Circuit Court of Appeals found that a First Amendment right to access dockets derives from a long history of public access to dockets and the need to enhance fairness and transparency (Hartford Courant v. Pellegrino, 380 F.3d 83 (2d Cir. 2004)). The court found that without open dockets, the public's ability “to attend civil and criminal cases would be merely theoretical if the information provided by the docket sheets were inaccessible” (id. at 91). Accordingly, the court held that dockets enjoy a presumption of openness and that the public has a qualified First Amendment right to examine them. This presumption is rebuttable only if suppression is narrowly tailored and is essential to preserve higher values (id. at 96). Importantly, this holding did not say that the Judicial Branch must publish dockets in print or on a website; it only imposed a duty to make dockets available.
The Connecticut Superior Court, however, does publish its daily docket on its website. The public and media can search (1) the daily docket by courthouse or defendant's name and (2) pending cases by docket number or defendant's name. Pending case information is updated nightly and includes the dates and locations of scheduled hearings. Interested parties must call the clerk's office to receive up-to-the-minute information. This is necessary if a judge schedules a hearing for the same day and the information is not yet available on the Judicial Branch's website.