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Central Park Jogger Civil Suit Settles—After 11 Years of Pre-trial

By James R. Maxeiner

The press is full of reports that the civil suit by the "Central Park Five" has been settled for $40 million. For readers who are not old enough to remember the original case from 1989, or have not seen Ken Burns’ 2012 documentary film on the case, I recap briefly. In 1989 a young woman was brutally raped in Central Park in New York City. Five innocent black and Hispanic teens were arrested, convicted, and sentenced to long prison terms. Finally, after serving many years in prison, DNA evidence exonerated the five in 2002. In 2003 they sued the City of New York.

Criminal law reformers rightly regard the settlement as an opportunity to revisit deficiencies in criminal law and procedure. These include questionable prosecutorial practices, long prison sentences, and trying juveniles as adults.

Court reformers should regard the settlement as an opportunity to revisit the civil justice system. Most reports fail to observe that the case was filed in 2003--over a decade ago. They assume such delay as a matter of course. New York is reported to have spent over $6 million and 30,000 hours on preparing its defense. The Central Park Five case makes Jarndyce v. Jarndyce in Charles Dickens’ Bleak House look like litigation at lightening speed and modest cost.

How much time should a civil lawsuit take? Not eleven years: not ever! Not a tenth that, the former President of the American Bar Association, David Dudley Field, Jr., told the Bar 125 years ago. Field thought a three-and-one-half year lawsuit (over the estate of presidential candidate Samuel J. Tilden) represented a "scandalous" delay. That is downright fast in Central Park standard time.

How much time should a lawsuit take? Not more than one year, Field eloquently said:

There is no reason in the nature of things why any lawsuit, if the witnesses are within the jurisdiction, should not be determined within a year from its beginning. When a litigation has run through the four seasons, it has run long enough. Twelve months are as long as an American citizen should be obliged to wait for justice, and I think it should be deemed a fundamental precept to all lawgivers and ministers of the law, that the judicial force be so arranged and the methods so contrived that the end of the year from the beginning of the process shall see the end of it.

Presently the American judicial force is not so arranged and its methods are not so contrived as to accomplish such a feat. It is time that they were. Those people who run our courts need to get judges to take responsibility for the cases assigned to them so that those cases are determined in a reasonable time: four seasons.