THE INDIVIDUAL CALENDAR
The Master Calendar system for assigning cases in multi-judge courts was used by most
federal trial courts until the 1960’s. It served the purposes of the District Court well during the
period it acted as primarily a state court with limited federal business. Divorce, landlord/tenant,
juvenile and probate cases crowded its docket and dominated its basic federal business under the
Master Calendar system. Judges came to work each day and were given the day’s assignment by
an Assignment Commissioner, who tried to even the load of each judge while giving some
judges the kind of cases the judge preferred wherever possible. The system had its faults. Often
a case was not ready and if nothing else was available a judge might leave in disgust or to play
golf. A single case passing through the process might come before six or eight judges prior to
trial who disposed of many motions or other key issues. As the case neared, trial lawyers
jockeyed for position. A knowledgeable attorney could manipulate assignments to get repeated
continuances or the judge he wanted. Criminal matters awaited the pleasure of the U.S.
The basic inefficiency of the Master Calendar led to backlog because delay was readily
achieved. The Assignment Commissioner and a couple of Pretrial Examiners made minimum
efforts to hasten the flow of work, and the judges asserted no case control.
As special minor courts were created to take on some of the local cases and civil litigation
became more complex due to the growth of the city and governmental initiatives, the federal role
of the court grew and the weaknesses of the Master Calendar system came under scrutiny in the
District of Columbia and elsewhere.
The focus was on various forms of calendar controls under which criminal and civil cases
would be assigned to a single judge from the outset of the case, remaining that judge’s
responsibility through all phases of pretrial and trial. Several federal district courts in major
cities began testing the idea with varying success and encountered the typical resistance to
change which all too frequently hampers progress in judicial administration. No matter how
fashioned, an individual calendar system made individual judges more accountable, and for some
it meant more work. Elements of the Bar who enjoyed the flexibility of the Master Calendar
system and feared judicial control of the calendar also objected. The Bar was no exception.
Many attorneys acted as local counsel in matters being handled by outside firms and enjoyed
steering cases through the Master Calendar process to get “the right judge at the right time.”
Nonetheless, backlogs were mounting, particularly on the dockets of federal district
courts based in major urban areas. The creation of a truly local court for the District of Columbia
in the 1960’s stimulated an already rising demand for change. The United States District Court
for the District of Columbia had one of the worst records, if not the worst, for delayed disposition
of both civil and criminal cases. Congress, the Attorney General and the Federal Judicial Center
were each suggesting ways of dealing with the problem nationally and, as always, looking to the
U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia to create a workable model.
The Judicial Council of the Circuit made its move in response to these pressures in March
1966 by appointing a committee of practicing lawyers to make recommendations on all aspects
of the evolving new court system and to aid in carrying out of the proposed restructuring. Judge
It is interesting to note that the Committee included among its members at various times
Wald, Pratt, Flannery, June Green, Parker and McArdle, each of whom later became a judge.
Gerhard A. Gesell, then a senior partner of Covington & Burling, was designated Chairman. The
committee came to be known as the Gesell Committee because of its ponderous name. It was
officially known as the Committee on the Administration of Justice of the Judicial Council of the
District of Columbia Circuit.
The Individual Calendar was but one of many issues studied by the Gesell Committee.
However, it was high on the agenda from the outset. The Committee, in a preliminary
Memorandum dated January 6, 1967 to the Liaison Chairman of a supporting D.C. Circuit Court
of Appeals committee selected by the Council (Judge Leventhal), suggested a two-year
experiment; but there was little enthusiasm for the idea, which was promptly vetoed by Judges
Curran, Sirica and Jones of the District Court. The Committee then decided that a detailed
management study was necessary before the plan could get serious attention. A study was finally
initiated after obtaining Ford Foundation financial support, and work went forward to review
various practices of both the United States Court of Appeals and the United States District Court
for the District of Columbia Circuit, including the feasibility of the Individual Calendar
Gesell became a Judge of the United States District Court for the District of Columbia
Circuit in December 1967, and the Committee continued under the chairmanship of Newell W.
Ellison, then one of Gesell’s partners. The Committee became known as the Ellison Committee.
Ellison continued to push the management study forward with vigor and became a strong
supporter of the Individual Calendar.1
In January 1969, without any prior discussion, Ellison and Gesell each acted to give the
Individual Calendar another push. Ellison wrote a strong letter to Judge Hart, Chairman of the
Court’s Executive Committee, again recommending use of an Individual Calendar. Ellison and
Hart were long-time friends, and this letter struck home. Gesell separately urged that pending
receipt of the management study the Court should take full control of the criminal calendar away
from the U.S. Attorney in order to clean up court congestion and remedy other causes for delay
of criminal work.
In late January, the broad outlines of Gesell’s proposal were approved by the Executive
Committee. The criminal calendar was in particularly bad shape. The U.S. Attorney controlled
the scheduling and many cases languished. Twelve judges were concentrating on it under the
Master Calendar system. After taking control they began to terminate more cases. Gesell’s plan
worked. He held a calendar call of the 200 oldest cases, and many fell by the wayside when it
developed that key witnesses were unavailable, a defendant had skipped or been convicted
solidly for another crime, or the cases proved for some reason not triable. The support of Judges
Gasch and Corcoran, who had both had prosecutor experience, was vital to this beginning shift
toward calendar control of criminal cases.
By June 1969 the Court’s Executive Committee (Hart, Jones and Corcoran) recommended
that a detailed Individual Calendar plan be developed. Gasch, Robinson and Gesell drew up a
plan; and on June 16, 1969, the Court voted 8-7 after long debate to initiate an individual
calendar for criminal cases only. Eight judges “volunteered” — Walsh, Gasch, Bryant, Smith,
Robinson, Gesell, Pratt and June Green. A detailed plan developed under the chairmanship of
Gasch was circulated and approved, with some modifications. The first criminal trial under the
new system was held in October 1969. The eight judges worked under the new system for about
seven months. It was a great success. Criminal business moved. Calendar calls got rid of old
cases. A defendant indicted at the same time for separate offenses came before the same judge.
Prosecutors were assigned to individual judges so they were always available to the Court. The
judges took control, and the U.S. Attorney was obliged to take positions on the merits of the
On April 23, 1970, the whole Court, including the seven original dissenters who had been
handling the civil cases for the Court, recognized the value of the new system and, led by Judge
Hart, graciously threw in their full support. Civil cases went on the Individual Calendar
assignment on April 29, 1970. Thereafter, each judge became individually responsible for his or
her share of both civil and criminal cases.
In May 1970, the final management report from the Ellison Committee issued setting
forth in clear, unequivocal terms the value of the Individual Calendar which the Court, in its own
halting, tentative way had come to recognize.
In retrospect, this now well-accepted process was the spark that transformed the District
Court into true federal status. Judges felt they were now truly [federal] judges. They could
determine the cases needing attention and guide their preparation for trial and be held solely
accountable for the result. No longer were they plagued by the uncertainties of the old Master
Calendar, which often held them accountable for work of other judges they could not understand
and often found inconsistent with their view of how a case should be shaped for trial. The trial
judge himself pursued dispositive pretrial motions; issues for trial were more clearly defined, and
scheduling conflicts became less severe. Because they were free to regulate their own activities,
William Jeffress, Jr. (Gesell); John Aldock (Youngdahl); Robert Higgins (Corcoran).
they were not chained to the bench. This, in turn, sparked an ever-increasing list of opinions and
more careful rulings that became the mark of the Court’s vital role in developing federal
precedent for the cutting issues of the day.
In order to put the Individual Calendar into effect, Court rules were hastily devised to
accommodate the new regimen. The precise plan and rule changes were worked out by a
committee consisting of Gasch, Robinson and Gesell. Experience soon necessitated minor
changes; and the inadequacy of the Court’s Rules, which had developed in a patchwork fashion,
became more apparent.
The Court authorized preparation of a new set of Rules, which proved to be a difficult
task. Gesell chaired a committee and designated three former District Court law clerks2
practicing in the District of Columbia to prepare a new working set. This committee has
continued to function ever since as rule changes became necessary and in recent years has been
chaired by Judge Harold Greene. A system has emerged by which proposed Rule changes are
publicized in advance for comment, and a model set has been created that rivals the best in the
The side effects of the Court’s shift to an Individual Calendar system were not planned.
Apart from taking control of our own business and achieving more efficient disposition of the
work, other effects were soon noted:
(1) Each month every judge received a statement showing the state of every judge’s
calendar. The number of dispositions by each judge, civil and criminal, was tallied, along with a
breakdown of the age of his or her remaining cases. Thus, every judge was quietly confronted
with how effectively he or she had been in comparison with his or her peers. A healthy but
gentle competition emerged. The monthly statement was not publicly released, but it was
occasionally referred to in the press.
(2) The new system placed a premium on a judge’s skill as a manager. Those judges who
kept close tabs on inventory of motions and the stage of each case moving toward trial [or
disposition by motion] made the most significant gains against backlogs. There was considerable
experimentation, and successful techniques were passed along to fellow judges at the judges’
lunch table. Gesell was asked by the Federal Judicial Center to prepare a tape for general
distribution illustrating case control techniques. This is reviewed by law clerks and some judges
of the Circuit and elsewhere, particularly for indoctrinating new judges.
(3) A judge with a well-managed calendar had more time in chambers to read and to
write, and the notion that a judge was loafing if the courtroom was dark gradually disappeared.
(4) When Watergate and other major litigation developed, the Individual Calendar
system provided two essential ingredients. First, it assured that a single judge would manage
each step of the proceedings, a continuity that would have been absent under the Master
Calendar. Second, the Court’s Rules allowed the Chief Judge, who was not in the assignment
draw, to assign a protracted matter specially, either to himself or another judge. The monthly
statements enabled the Chief Judge at a glance to identify those judges most readily available for
special assignment because of the status of their already assigned duties. Chief Judge Hart, Chief
Judge Sirica and Chief Judge Robinson took full advantage of this process from time to time.
RE: CHRONOLOGY OF DISTRICT COURT INDIVIDUAL CALENDAR REFORM
March 15, 1966 Gesell designated chairman of The Committee on the Administration of
Justice of the Judicial Council of the District of Columbia Circuit.
General concern existed over delays in criminal cases. U. S. District Court
for the District of Columbia in bad shape. Congress and Federal Judicial
Center active. Department of Justice also. This Court has especially poor
January 6, 1967 Preliminary memorandum to Judges’ Liaison Committee indicated need
for two-year experiment with individual calendar. (Circuit Judge
Leventhal Chairman of the Liaison Committee.)
Thereafter, Ford Foundation grant obtained and management study of the
Circuit Court of Appeals and the District Court got underway. Individual
calendar was but one of many issues. Judge Leventhal and Judge
McGowan in continuous contact.
District Court not receptive (Judges Curran, Sirica, Jones). Bar also
unenthusiastic – manipulating Master Calendar. Controversial issue in
other district courts.
December 1967 Gesell becomes United States District Judge and Newell Ellison [his
former partner] continues work of the Committee, including court
management study, as Chairman.
January 1969 Gesell Memorandum to Executive Committee of the Court urging Court
control of docket. [at Library of Congress]
January 23, 1969 Executive Committee of Court approved Gesell’s proposal that District
Judges take calendar control away from U.S. Attorney in criminal cases
and move business by Calendar Calls. Chief Judge Curran gives his O.K.
Gesell conducts test calendar call of  oldest [criminal] cases.
Ellison again recommends use of the Individual Calendar in letter to Judge
June 6, 1969 Court’s Executive Committee (Judges Hart, Jones, Corcoran) recommend
time to prepare detailed plans for Individual Calendar.
Burger becomes Chief Justice of Supreme Court and immediately urges
more current case loads.
June 16, 1969 Executive Session of Court decided (8-7), after long debate, to start with
criminal Individual Calendar only. Judges Gasch, Robinson and Gesell to
prepare plan. The eight Judges voting favorably on the idea were assigned
to the first Individual Calendar because they volunteered: Judges Walsh,
Gasch, Bryant, Smith, Robinson, Gesell, Pratt and June Green. [Note, the
last three Judges had been active on the Committee on the Administration
of Justice appointed by the Judicial Council.]
August 6, 1969 Judge Gasch’s committee circulates proposed Criminal Individual
Calendar Plan developed by the committee.
September 8, 1969 Above plan approved at the Executive session of Court.
October 1, 1969 Criminal Individual Calendar Plan in effect and the first trial held that
month. Individual Calendar an immediate success. Control taken early by
calendar calls of all pending criminal cases assigned to the eight judges
carried on at approximately the same time.
April 29, 1970 Individual Calendar approved for civil cases as well, effective May 1,
May 1970 Ellison Committee’s formal report setting forth advantages of Individual
Calendar issued in printed form.
Senior Judges at the time, Pine, Youngdahl, Keech and McGarraghy, had
expressed preference not to participate when queried in January and
February 1970, and their wishes were honored. Thereafter, new senior
judges accustomed to the Individual Calendar continued on this basis but
with reduced draw of cases.
June 26, 1990
Note. I have assembled most of the basic materials to make available at any time. These include
most of the key internal Court memoranda and some statistics. G.A.G.
[at Library of Congress]