Unlocking the Mystery of the "Dark Courtroom"
Congratulations! It’s everything you’ve ever wanted—the proper size, the latest technology, and just the right amount of seating. So, why then, is it not being used all of the time? While this description may call to mind a newly purchased automobile sitting idle in a driveway, in reality, we are talking about newly constructed courtrooms that may go unutilized on any given day. We call these unoccupied courtrooms “dark courtrooms.” Funding authorities frequently use this term to cite signs of potential judicial mismanagement or inefficiency, giving reasons to limit funding for additional facilities. However, unlike an un-driven shiny new car, unoccupied available and functioning courtrooms are critical to the judicial process. But those outside of the judicial system may not fully appreciate the logistics of courtroom utilization.
Dan Wiley, national courthouse programming expert and former court administrator, commonly notes four factors that influence courtroom utilization and contribute to the impression of a dark courtroom. These include trial washout, trial durations, judicial scheduling, and lack of appropriate space.
This factor has the greatest impact on courtroom utilization. The mere availability of litigation space and a looming court date increases the probability that a criminal case will reach a plea agreement or that civil matters will be settled out of court. While scheduling procedures have been adapted to anticipate a certain number of trial washouts and overbook courtrooms accordingly, it is still an inexact science.
The length of any trial is always unpredictable. Factors such as witness availability, time allotted for testimony, and last minute motions can all impact the time required for a given trial. Depending on the prevalence of any of these factors during a trial, the duration can be shorter or longer than anticipated.
Judicial Scheduling - A third and often overlooked reason is circumstances and commitments that may take a judge away from his or her courtroom, such as legal research, calendar preparation, signing orders, continuing education, or illness. In some instances, these activities may be scheduled, but others are unpredictable and leave courtrooms unoccupied. Some jurisdictions have the resources to utilize senior judges to maintain optimum courtroom use where scheduling voids exist, while others do not have this luxury due to funding constraints.
Lack of Appropriate Space
This is a more common problem with older court facilities where the type and number of litigation spaces can have a negative impact on utilization practices. As an example, an older facility may be limited in the number of jury-capable courtrooms to accommodate a pending criminal trial, leaving smaller, ill-equipped courtrooms unoccupied in the process. Adding to this dynamic are facilities that cannot deliver inmates to the courtrooms in a secure manner, which may also reduce the number of effective courtroom spaces when aligning availability with function.
While all of the above examples outline the reasons that there are gaps in courtroom utilization, they don’t fully address one basic question: Why can’t the next proceeding move up the ladder to fill the void? The simplest answer is that there are just too many moving parts to any given case process or trial. As we all know from our own lives, when things get placed on our personal calendar, we then begin to schedule other activities in and around them. So, just because a trial date can be moved up, it doesn’t mean that the attorneys, witnesses, court staff, and other involved parties can instantly rearrange their schedules to fill a void in the calendar.
So, where does that leave us? It is absolutely important for the court to monitor courtroom utilization and look for predictable patterns that offer opportunities for increased efficiency. But, it is equally important that there is sufficient space available to keep the justice process flowing smoothly. Courtroom availability has a direct impact on operational cost throughout the court system and can even reduce the average length of stay for incarcerated individuals awaiting trial. As a result, an occasional “dark courtroom” is preferable to justice that is delayed due to unavailable courtroom space.