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Work in Progress: The Tension between Justice and Efficiency

March 24, 2009

Court deadlines don’t just cause anxiety for lawyers. They can mean the difference between life and death, says Penn Law Professor Catherine Struve.

Michael Richards, a death-row inmate in Texas, was set to be executed at 6 p.m. on September 25, 2007. That same day the Supreme Court decided that it would review in Baze v. Rees whether lethal injection amounted to cruel and unusual punishment. Richards’ lawyers decided to ask the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals for a stay of the execution until the Supreme Court reached a ruling in Baze
Computer problems, however, prevented Richards’ lawyers from filing before the ordinary 5:00 p.m. closing time of the clerk’s office, and they asked the court to keep the clerk’s office open to accept a late filing. The presiding judge refused and Richards was executed.   Two days later, lawyers for another Texas death-row inmate obtained a stay from the U.S. Supreme Court on the basis of the grant of certiorari in Baze
Struve is researching what deadlines and their treatment indicate about the litigation system. She will present her research at the Clifford Symposium on Tort Law and Social Policy at DePaul University College of Law in April.
The missed deadline in Richards’ case, said Struve, highlights the tension between justice and efficiency because lawyers’ failures to meet deadlines can result in the loss of rights for clients. On cases concerning federal matters, failure to meet a state-court deadline can automatically disqualify cases from federal review.    
Deadlines also reveal the division of authority between courts and Congress, said Struve. Laws such as the Prison Litigation Reform Act set deadlines within which federal courts have to take action. Such deadlines may intrude into courts’ ability to prioritize their own activities and could impair their decision-making function, she said. 
Similarly, deadlines also shed light on how judges view the task of lawyering.   Some judges will grant an extension, while others will not, depending on whether they consider the mistakes that lawyers make as impermissible or as instances of “excusable neglect.” The factors used to consider extension requests vary from judge to judge and from circuit to circuit, said Struve.  
Lawyers also differ in their views on extensions. Some live by the rule that they will never seek an extension, while others, like some judges, consider deadlines flexible, said Struve.