A significant number of my posts so far have focused on technological innovation.  This week’s post, however, focuses on an innovation that, for the most part, does not rely on technology.

Drake University Law School launched a new Institute for Justice Reform and Innovation in July. The nonpartisan Institute serves as a center for research and training on topics including implicit bias, sentencing reform, and improving trial procedures; it forges relationships with lawyers, judges, former jurors, court administrators, multi-disciplinary academics, non-profit advocacy groups and think tanks, and law students to achieve its goal of enhancing justice in the 21st century.

The institute is led by the Honorable Mark Bennett, a U.S. district court judge and nationally-renowned scholar and speaker on cutting-edge legal topics. One of the nation’s leading experts on implicit bias, Bennett has published more than 1,400 opinions and 24 law review articles in journals including the Journal of Criminal Law and Criminology and the Harvard Journal of Law and Public Policy. Judge Bennett will also teach a class at the Law School, serve as a resource for faculty and students, and continue speaking and writing on a national level.

“I am very excited for Judge Bennett to join us,” said Jerry Anderson, dean of Drake Law School. “He has devoted his entire career to improving the justice system in our country, and we look forward to providing him with a platform to continue this important work in collaboration with our students and faculty.”

An important goal of the Institute is providing information and education about Trial by Agreement and Pre-Trial Agreements, which Judge Bennett considers to be two of the most significant innovations in decades for the civil justice systems in state and federal courts. The basic idea—developed by Texas trial lawyers Steve Susman and Thomas Melsheimer— is for the lawyers to agree to discovery principles and trial principles in the abstract, before they get into any conflict.  The agreements focus on ideas that would likely be acceptable to both sides, that would not inherently benefit either the plaintiff or defendant. According to Judge Bennett, this approach reduces costs and minimizes delay.

Judge Bennett has incorporated Trial by Agreement into his supplemental trial management order entered early in every civil case. Lawyers in all filed civil cases are required to read about Trial by Agreement, discuss it with their clients, and file an affidavit to that effect. Judges are encouraged to follow Bennett’s lead, and trial lawyers and litigators are urged to suggest use of Trial by Agreement in their cases.

Another feature of the Institute is its repository of academic articles and other resources relating to both civil and criminal justice. Resource topics in the Civil and Criminal Repository include:

  • jury instructions: comprehension and plain English,
  • judges,
  • post-verdict juror questioning,
  • witness memory and demeanor, and
  • implicit bias in the law.