Chief US District Judge Janet C. Hall of the US District Court for the District of Connecticut talks about her role as a federal judge and experiences during her time on the bench, and offers practical advice to litigators.
Education: 2007: L.L.D., honoris causa, Quinnipiac University; 1973: J.D., New York University School of Law; 1970: A.B., magna cum laude, Mount Holyoke College.
Career in Brief: 1997–present: US District Court for the District of Connecticut (2013–present: Chief Judge); 1980–1997: Robinson & Cole LLP (1982–1997: Partner; 1980–1982: Associate); 1975–1980: US Department of Justice Antitrust Division, Trial Attorney (1979: Special Assistant US Attorney, Eastern District of Virginia); 1973–1975: Hale and Dorr LLP, Associate.
What do you enjoy most about your roles as a federal judge and the Chief Judge for the District of Connecticut? I appreciate the variety of work I see. A federal district court docket is extremely diverse and busy, and never boring. Every case, from small civil actions to complex multi-defendant criminal matters, can present challenging issues. Additionally, I am grateful to interact with many talented attorneys who practice in my district. These tireless advocates work hard to help me reach the right result under the law and facts of a given case.
As Chief Judge, I am fortunate to have wonderful colleagues and be part of a remarkably collegial court. I have particularly welcomed the opportunity to work with new judges on our court as they establish chambers and begin their judicial work.
What are your greatest challenges in civil cases? My biggest challenge is achieving a fair and just result under the rule of law in every case, given the tensions often inherent in that effort. For example, Rule 1 of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure directs me to use the rules to "secure the just, speedy, and inexpensive determination of every action and proceeding." The challenge is that what is just, speedy, and inexpensive differs from case to case. I try to manage my cases in a way that maintains efficiency and also ensures that litigants receive full consideration, but finding that balance can be tricky.
What have been the most significant developments in civil litigation during your time on the bench? The advent of the Case Management and Electronic Case Files (CM/ECF) system has radically changed the way in which civil cases proceed. I think the move to CM/ECF has been a great development for both the parties and the court.
When I first became a judge, filings were on paper, retained by the Clerk of Court and, for the most part, submitted by mail. If I wanted to review a pleading, I had to pull the physical file from the clerk's office. Several days typically passed between when a party submitted something and when I reviewed it. Electronic filing has changed all of that. Now, I can review a document minutes after a party has submitted it, giving me a greater ability to respond quickly to emergencies and urgent needs. An electronic docket also allows me to access, review, and verify information during proceedings, which is very helpful.
How has your experience with complex litigation, both in private practice and for the Department of Justice, shaped your approach to complex cases? My experience as a litigator in private practice and my time at the Antitrust Division of the Department of Justice have given me a good sense of what needs to happen, and when, for a complex case to be trial-ready. This knowledge better enables me to work with attorneys to prepare cases for trial and ensure that I am helping move cases toward resolution. Having an appreciation for the enormous amount of time and energy that goes into preparing a complex matter for trial has served me well in my capacity as a judge.
What impact do you foresee social media and other technological developments having on discovery and trial practice in general? The existence and widespread use of social media has had a profound effect on many aspects of litigation and trial practice, but one facet of social media that concerns me most is the use of social media by jurors.
In the digital age, it is easy for jurors to research cases or find information about the parties on the internet. We have taken steps in the District to prevent jurors from accessing case-related information on their own during trials. I explain this prohibition to jurors when the jury has been selected, and remind them of it at the start of the evidence, at the end of each trial day, and again before they start deliberations. However, I still worry about the potential for prejudice if, for example, a juror uses the internet in the middle of a highly publicized trial. When I talk to the jury, I try to explain, in detail, not only that they may not use outside sources of any kind, but also why doing so is unfair and wastes everyone's time.
A different technological development that has positively impacted trial practice is the growth of electronic evidence presentation systems. In my courtroom, it is possible for me, the jury, and the public to review a document or view a picture while an attorney is examining a witness. This has made it easier for everyone to follow along with an attorney's examination and the witness's answers, and for attorneys to present evidence more effectively. Also, during deliberations, the jury can view the evidence electronically.
What do you wish attorneys explained to their clients about federal litigation? All attorneys should provide their clients with accurate and honest information about the process of litigating a federal case, including the risks and benefits involved in each stage of litigation. As a litigator, I was careful to avoid telling clients that they were certain to win or lose a case or motion, so I am always surprised when an attorney takes that position before me. There are too many risks inherent in litigation for black-and-white predictions. For example, there may be an unexpected death of a key witness or the possibility that a jury will interpret the facts of a case differently than your client. Clients need clear, comprehensive information from their attorneys about what prosecuting or defending their case is likely to cost, as well as what they might gain by engaging in the litigation process.
What advice would you give counsel on preparing for a Rule 26(f) conference? In my experience, Rule 26(f) conferences are helpful only when the attorneys involved are fully prepared. That requires attorneys to sit down with their clients before a conference to make sure they understand the case and the issues it involves. Further, defense attorneys should vet their likely defenses so they can give informed responses to a plaintiff's discovery proposals. Any attorney participating in a Rule 26(f) conference should have adequate enough information to answer detailed questions from an adversary or the court.
Additionally, both parties should consider the kind of discovery plan that will be most effective for the case at hand. For example, counsel should consider whether phased discovery is appropriate, beginning with an initial wave of targeted discovery, followed by an opportunity for both parties to reassess the merits of their respective positions, and then additional discovery, if necessary.
What is your biggest courtroom pet peeve? I dislike it when an attorney does not answer the court's question, and long responses that fail to answer the question posed are even worse. A direct and concise answer often is the best response. Further, I value preparation and efficiency. Attorneys should not waste the court's, attorneys', and clients' time through lack of organization, petty disagreements, frivolous arguments, or inattention.
Time is a precious resource for jurors as well, so I am also troubled when attorneys do not respect the important task we ask juries to perform and the sacrifice required to perform it. Although unforeseen issues can arise during a case, there is no excuse for keeping the jurors in the jury room while counsel argue about an issue that easily could have been raised and resolved at the final pretrial conference.
Which current or former US Supreme Court Justices do you admire, and why? Justice Sandra Day O'Connor, as the first woman appointed to the Supreme Court, was part of a generation of women that strove to create a place for women both in the practice of law and on the bench. This group also includes Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg and my longtime colleague in the District of Connecticut, Judge Ellen Bree Burns. It is because of the hard work, dedication, and sacrifices of these women that today nearly a third of active Article III judges are women. Having a federal judiciary that reflects the diversity of our society is an important part of ensuring that our justice system is fair to all who appear before it.