Court Reform: A keen focus on the fundamentals of justice
Kevin S. Burke
Chief Judge, Hennepin County District Court in Minneapolis, Minnesota
All judges want to be like Snow White — the fairest of them all. Judge Kevin Burke’s mission is to make sure his peers give equal weight to the arguments of all the parties before them and explain their decisions in such a way that those parties can follow them.
As chief judge of the Hennepin County District Court in Minneapolis, Burke instituted a program of videotaping judges. People with business before the court are interviewed five minutes after their cases are finished and asked whether they are satisfied with their treatment. When they are not, Burke takes the judge straight to the videotape, offering pointed instruction about how he or she can improve job performance.
Burke, 54, has done a lot to make the courts work better in Minneapolis. When he joined the Hennepin bench 20 years ago, the mean time the court took to conclude a case was three years, even after a trial date was set. “I wouldn’t practice up there, it was so bad,” says A.M. “Sandy” Keith, a Rochester attorney and former state Supreme Court justice.
Today, the average time a case takes to move from initial filing to disposition has shrunk to under six months, with 90 percent of all civil cases resolved within a year. Like many others in the Minnesota legal community, Keith credits Burke with turning things around at the state’s busiest court. (Burke has twice been chief judge, completing his most recent stint this past July. He still serves as a district judge.)
Most trial judges, by the nature of their work, tend to focus on their cases and remain isolated from their colleagues and the larger judicial system. Burke is an exception. Court management in general has gotten better in recent years, but Burke has been especially aggressive in implementing the best new practices.
He assigns judges to cover all aspects of a case, rather than having them waste time getting up to speed for just one hearing. He has also improved the court’s in-house training and time management, finding ways to keep judges busy plowing through the parts of their caseloads that don’t require court time. He helped persuade the legislature to allow more cases to be heard in small claims court, and he’s often turned to timesaving help from non-judges, using experts in fields from accounting to dry cleaning to resolve minor cases.
”He has made the Hennepin County Court ludicrously efficient,” says Kate Stanley, an editorial writer with the Minneapolis Star-Tribune. “It’s an incredibly well-run and highly admired court system.”
Burke’s changes have been not only managerial but structural as well. He got the legislature to change the source of funding for public defenders, shifting the cost from property taxes to the general fund and helping to save a system going bankrupt in the state’s rural areas.
In Hennepin, he created a drug court to address the system’s painfully slow reaction to drug arrests. Legal delays were a big reason why only 600 of the 4,500 people arrested on felony drug charges in 1995 were ever sent to prison.
Anyone arrested in Hennepin County on a drug charge before 2 a.m. will appear in court later that same day. The court also offers same-day service to those who need treatment. Some have complained that the drug court’s openness to treatment is a sign that Burke is soft on crime, but the reality is that his court increased the number of drug convictions by 54 percent in its first year.
”He has the wonderful quality of being able to combine the wisdom of tenure with the eagerness of a new person,” says Kathleen Blatz, chief justice of the Minnesota Supreme Court.
Burke himself sometimes downplays the significance of having made the Hennepin Court run so much smoother. “It’s easy to ascertain whether you’re fast or not,” he says. “I think courts need to be held accountable to a higher plan than just speed or efficiency, and that’s the fairness of your court’s operation.”
Hennepin is the first court in the country to define performance measures and make its numbers publicly available. Videotaping judges to make sure they are conducting themselves in a fair and comprehensible way is catching on, and Burke often speaks at courts across the country and in Canada.
So where did he come up with the idea? Burke, an avid golfer, already was using tapes to improve his game. “If I would use it as my hobby,” he says, “why wouldn’t I use it in my profession?”
— Alan Greenblatt
Photo by Richard Sennott