Court Organization and Administration

A number of issues relating to the operation, management, and organization of courts directly affect their design requirements, the number and location of courtrooms, the types of specialized courtrooms, and the location of the judges' chambers. Because there is considerable complexity in the way courts organize and assign cases, planning and design teams need to be aware of the court's operation and the possibility for change.

Judicial Assignments and Calendaring

The way in which a court distributes its workload (cases) affects the court's needs. There are two ways in which courts assign cases to judges: individual calendars and master calendars. Between these two poles exist a number of hybrid systems.

Individual Calendar

In the individual calendar, cases are assigned to judges at the time of filing, usually in rotation or by some random method. The judges then manage their own caseloads and are responsible for their individual cases until disposition. In this type of system, case-scheduling activities are handled by the judge's staffs.

Master Calendar

Under a master calendar system, as cases are filed they are placed into a common pool to await further action and assignment to judges. In this system, judges frequently rotate among duties. As motions are filed in a case, the judge currently serving as the motions judge receives the case; at the conclusion of the motion hearing, the case is reassigned to the pool to await the next action. On the trial date, the case is assigned to the next available judge. In this type of system case scheduling is handled by a centralized court office.

The type of calendaring or scheduling system affects the way in which case files are handled. In an individual calendar, the case files may reside in the judge's office until the case is disposed, while in master calendar courts the case file will circulate between different judges and the clerk's office. This has implications for file storage requirements in both the judges' offices and the clerk's office, as well as for adjacency requirements. This of course will change as courts become more automated and electronic case files become easily available to judges and staff regardless of physical location.

Master calendar courts generally require one or more large courtrooms for holding calendar calls where all the cases scheduled for the court term are scheduled to appear. If judges are permanently assigned a courtroom and the assignment of calling the calendar rotates among the judges, then each judge's courtroom will have to be large enough to accommodate the calendar call. Courts that operate on the individual calendar generally do not need courtrooms as large, but more activity may take place in the judge's chambers.

Most courts, however, do not operate under one system exclusively. Often courts will change from one system to another over the years. Many courts will process some cases, such as criminal matters, under one system but use another for other case types. It is necessary, therefore, for court facilities to be flexible enough to handle either system.

Use of Court Divisions

In smaller courts, it is common for each judge to hear all types of cases. As courts become larger, they often assign each case type to a particular division where judges hear only those cases. Typical divisions include civil, criminal, juvenile, domestic relations, small claims, and traffic. In very large courts there may be even further differentiation, such as between delinquency and dependency matters. Courts also may refer to these separate divisions as calendars. So, a court may have a criminal calendar or a civil calendar. These divisions may be housed in separate buildings, and frequently judges rotate among divisions over a period of time; in other circumstances, judges may be assigned permanently to a single division.

In courts that are large enough to house a single division in one building, considerable specialization in that facility is possible. Such is the case in Houston TX where there are separate civil, criminal, and family court buildings. Another example are traffic or misdemeanor courts. Where they are housed in their own facilities, such as Maryland, this allows the development of specialized traffic courts and greater standardization of the internal design.

In courts where judges sit in divisions and rotate duties, courtrooms may need to accommodate all types of cases, including civil, criminal, jury, and non-jury. If, however, judges are not permanently assigned their own courtrooms, then more specialized courtrooms may be designed to fit the type of case to be heard.

Adjacency of Courtrooms to Chambers

As a general rule, courtrooms should be close to the judges' chambers, although this does not require that they be immediately connected. It is often more convenient and flexible for future organizational changes to have judges' chambers organized into judicial suites slightly apart from the courtrooms, perhaps even on a separate floor. The clustering of judicial chambers permits the pooling of resources and staff and may enhance security. Often when chambers are separated from courtrooms, a "robing room" or small conference room, which can be equipped with a desk and phone, is provided immediately behind the courtroom. Judges can use this room to conduct small hearings or other business during short court recesses without having to go back to chambers.

Ratios: Judges, Juries and Courtrooms

  • Courtrooms to Judges
  • Jury Deliberation Rooms to Courtrooms
  • Jury to Non-jury Courtrooms

Courtrooms to Judges

One courtroom per judge has been the traditional pattern in most court­ houses throughout the United States. In less populated areas, judges may sit only one or two days per week, or per month, and so one courtroom may be shared by several divisions of the same court, or by different courts. In larger courts with more than twenty judges where not every judge will be available every day to sit in court, it may be feasible to have fewer courtrooms than judges. Judges are absent from their courtrooms for many different reasons, such as administrative work in their chambers, legal research in their chambers, meetings, judicial education programs, illness, and personal leave.

Some courts have adopted a ratio of one courtroom per judge until the court reaches about ten judges; above that number, the court may need only three courtrooms for every four judges. This can occur only where judges share courtrooms or where judges' chambers are clustered so that sharing courtrooms is practical. One drawback with this approach is that the court has little room for expansion. Another drawback is that most courts use retired and visiting judges to help address their caseload or to fill in for absent judges. Unless there are sufficient courtrooms for these judges, the court will not be able to take full advantage of their presence. It is important when calculating the need for courtrooms that the use of visiting and senior judges, or other judicial officers, be included.

Not every hearing or proceeding has to take place in a courtroom; many can be held in chambers or in a smaller hearing or conference room. Another consideration is the growth potential of the court's caseload. Where there has been little change in caseload over the years, courts do not need to build with expansion in mind, but where the caseload has grown rapidly, the court should be wary of building less than one courtroom per judge.

One strategy for extending the useful life of the courthouse is to begin with at least one courtroom per judge, but design the facility so that it can easily handle more judges than courtrooms in later years. In this way, a building that may have lasted only fifteen years before needing an addition may last twenty to twenty-five years. This requites the ability to add chambers and other support spaces as the court grows.

For courtroom sharing to work, all courtrooms should be identical in their capabilities. All should be capable of holding a criminal jury trial. If some courtrooms lack jury boxes or holding cells, then the court is limited in the types of trials or hearings that can be held in a particular courtroom and loses the benefits of being able to share courtrooms.

Jury Deliberation Rooms to Courtrooms

The precise ratio of jury deliberation rooms to courtrooms should be determined on a court-by-court basis. Among the factors to consider are the type of calendaring system used by the court, the type of case (e.g., civil, criminal), the judges' practice of conducting hearings in chambers or conference rooms, and the past percentage of cases in which a jury is re­quested. It is also important to consider the number of floors in the courthouse and the number of courtrooms per floor. It is important to locate jury deliberation rooms on the same floor as the courtroom it serves.

Some rules of thumb may be used for preliminary planning. Large, multijudge courts (i.e., more than ten judges) do not need one jury deliberation room for every courtroom. Some experts use a rule of one jury deliberation room per courtroom until the court expands to more than four or five courtrooms. After that a ratio of 75 percent may be applied. Criminal courts may require a higher ratio of deliberation rooms per courtroom than civil, municipal, and traffic courts. Some courts have used a ratio of six or seven deliberation rooms per ten jury court­rooms, as long as deliberation rooms are accessible to all courtrooms.

Jury to Non-Jury Courtrooms

The ratio of jury to non-jury courtrooms depends upon several factors, but the primary factor is the percentage of cases in which a jury trial is requested. Courts should plan to have a jury courtroom always available to hear a jury trial; no case should ever be continued for lack of a jury courtroom. The most flexible situation is for each courtroom to have a jury box or space for a jury box. A jury courtroom can be used for any type of hearing or trial, while a small non-jury courtroom is limited in how it may be used. As a general rule, unless jury trials are extremely rare, the court probably should plan to make all, or nearly all, courtrooms jury capable.