Monday, March 10, 2008
JUDGE FOR A DAY
by Gina Sestak
Serving on Common Pleas Court arbitration panels is one of the more interesting things I get to do as a practicing lawyer. In fact, I'm scheduled to do it this morning, and I am psyched.
In Allegheny County, Pennsylvania, certain civil cases, primarily those seeking $25,000 or less in damages, must be tried before a panel of three attorneys. This is called Compulsory Arbitration. As a member of an arbitration panel, I get to participate in deciding these cases. It's like being a judge for a day. If any of the parties is dissatisfied with the decision of the arbitration panel, the case can be appealed for trial before a real elected Common Pleas Court Judge and, if requested, a jury.
Hearings are held in Room 523 of the Allegheny County Courthouse. All cases are scheduled for 9:00 and are heard on a first come, first served basis -- as soon as all parties are present, the case will be given a number. There are six small rooms around the perimeter of Room 523 in which the arbitration panels sit. Hearings are informal -- the panel sits across a table from the parties and their lawyers, if they have any. Many of these cases are pro se, meaning that the individuals involved elect to represent themselves. No court reporters are required, but sometimes parties will bring a court reporter on their own. That is allowed.
Those of us who hear these cases take our responsibilities seriously. For one thing, we are required to be sworn in each and every time we serve:
"We do solemnly swear that we will support, obey and defend the Constitution of the United States and the Constitution of this Commonwealth and that we will discharge the duties of our office with fidelity."
I don't know about you, but I love oaths (and not just the cussing kind). That's why my favorite duty on an arbitration panel is administering the oath to witnesses:
"You do solemnly swear, before Almighty God, the searcher of all hearts, that the evidence you are about to give in the cause now being heard shall be the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth, as you shall answer to God on that last great day."
Wow. In other words, lie to us and you are going straight to Hell!
An arbitration panel's power is limited. Our decisions must be based upon the law and the evidence and testimony that's presented to us. We can't just decide to do something because it seems fair, much as we might want to in some cases.
Once all of the evidence and argument has been presented, and the parties have provided us with self-addressed envelopes in which our decision will be mailed to them, the parties leave. The door is closed so we can deliberate in private. Most cases are decided by consensus, with all panel members coming to agreement after discussion. If agreement can't be reached, the case will be decided two to one, with the dissenting member noting his or her dissent on the decision. Unlike cases tried before a judge, arbitration panels cannot be required to write opinions explaining our decisions.
On a given day, an arbitration panel may hear anywhere from one to ten or more cases, depending upon how long each takes. All of the panels continue to sit until every case has at least begun to have a hearing. On rare occasions, a panel cannot hear a case because one of its members has a conflict of interest -- such as working for the same law firm as a party's attorney, or knowing one of the parties. When that happens, the case is sent to another panel.
All in all, this system works well for justly deciding a large number of cases at minimum cost to taxpayers. Panel members are paid $150 per day and, although that day may end before noon if the cases are heard quickly, sometimes the day can stretch into the late afternoon. Since arbitration doesn't break for lunch, this can make for a long, long day. So if I don't respond to your comments in a timely fashion today, you can guess that it's because I'm busily dispensing justice.