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Judges say local counsel make rocket docket work

U.S. District Judge Robert E. Payne says local counsel are essential to the smooth functioning of the rocket docket of the Richmond federal courts.

“You have to educate the out-of-town lawyers about the way things are done here,” he told a courtroom full of lawyers last week at a continuing legal education program sponsored by the Richmond Bar Association.

“Make it clear that you’re not being hired from the neck down – we’re looking to you,” he said.

Local counsel should read and edit pleadings rather than just signing off on them, he said.

Payne’s colleague, U.S. District Judge Henry E. Hudson, reminded those working as local counsel, “if the other counsel doesn’t show up, you’re responsible.”

A third judge in the Richmond division, John A. Gibney Jr., joined Magistrate Judges M. Hannah Lauck and Dennis W. Dohnal for the conference.

Payne said the rocket docket has slowed down a little as a result of new federal rules and an increased caseload. “People litigate more and settle less during hard times,” he said.

He added that he has been in trial more or less constantly since October, which has cut into his chambers time. That might have resulted in shorter opinions, but “that’s not necessarily the case,” he said with a chuckle.

Payne has a reputation for writing long opinions and produced a 30-page opinion last week that amounted to summary judgment in a case involving a dispute between a lender and an insurer at the same time he was presiding over a two-week products liability case. That trial resulted in a $212 million jury verdict – and a $12.35 million judgment after he reduced a $200 million punitive damages award to the state cap of $350,000.

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