Court of Common Pleas
Honorable James M. McMaster
Court of Common Pleas
Standard Operating Procedures
Initial scheduling of hearings or trials is handled by filings with the Prothonotary, Clerk of Courts or Clerk of the Orphans Court, who in turn forward things to the Court Administrator's Office.
Requests for continuances of matters on any Trial or Arbitration List are handled by the Court Administrator's Office. The procedures can be found on the Court Calendar page.
Requests for continuances for any Orphans Court matter shall be directed to the Administrative Judge of the Orphans Court.
Requests for continuances for matters specifically scheduled before Judge McMaster, other than Orphans Court matters, should be addressed to the Judge's chambers by mail or fax. No such requests will be considered unless in writing. Continuance requests must be sought as soon as possible. Continuances are not favored. Counsel must have good cause for any requests. All requests for continuances must indicate the steps counsel has taken to seek the approval of all other counsel or unrepresented parties of the continuance. The position of all other counsel or unrepresented parties to the request should be stated in the letter making the request.
Conferences on cases assigned to Judge McMaster, other than Orphans Court cases, should be arranged by contact with the Judge's Secretary. Judge McMaster is willing to hold conferences to assist in the routine pre-trial processing of cases or to consider possible settlement of cases. Generally, conferences are only scheduled where all parties are represented by counsel. Conferences are normally held in chambers between 8:30 AM and 10:00 AM and are not on the record except when specifically ordered by the Court. Conferences can be arranged by telephone where the person making the request can arrange for the conference call.
When requesting a conference counsel should indicate the purpose for the conference, the length of time requested and the position of the other counsel as to having a conference. In addition, to the greatest extent possible, the person requesting the conference should be prepared to advise the Judge's Secretary as to the times when the participants will be available.
Requests for conferences in Orphans Court cases shall be made by Motion in accordance with the local Orphans Court Rules.
2. Oral Argument
Whenever Oral Argument has been requested, in addition to making the request on the Praecipe, counsel requesting Oral Argument are encouraged but not required to send a brief letter to Chambers indicating that the request has been made and explaining why oral argument will be helpful to the Court. Any such letter should also indicate the position of other counsel in the case regarding the need for oral argument. The request for oral argument will be evaluated in accordance with the Court Rules and the Court will contact the parties if it decides to schedule oral argument.
Oral Arguments are normally held in chambers and are not on the record. When the Court decides to hold oral argument, the Judge's Secretary will notify the attorney making the request and give them one or more prospective dates and times. That attorney will be responsible for contacting other counsel to confirm their availability and reporting the results of such contact to the Judge's Secretary. The actual scheduling of oral argument will be confirmed by the Judge's Secretary via mail, fax or email.
Counsel should be prompt, professionally attired and well prepared for Oral Argument. Be prepared to engage in a colloquy with the Court, rather than to make a set argument. Be prepared to discuss applicable legal authority as well as the facts of the case.
3. Conference Memos
The Court expects that each party will submit a Conference Memo to Chambers at least three days prior to any scheduled conference. Conference Memos may be submitted either by mail or by fax. Please select one and only one method to transmit them to the Court. Conference Memos can be in the form of a letter addressed to the Court. All Conference Memos submitted to the Court should be transmitted to all other counsel in the same manner as they are transmitted to the Court.
Conference Memos should briefly describe the issue or issues to be discussed at the conference and should indicate the position of the submitting party with respect to those issues. Conference Memos should not exceed five pages.
Conference Memos should not be filed with the Prothonotary or Clerk of Courts and do not become part of the record in any case. Conference Memos are designed solely to assist Judge McMaster in preparing for the conference.
4. Courtesy Copies
Only when things are filed shortly before a conference, hearing or trial is it necessary for courtesy copies of things filed with the appropriate office to be given to the Court or sent to chambers. Counsel are expected to file things in a timely fashion so that they will be in the Court file when it is delivered to the Judge.
5. Procedures and Expectations for Hearings or Trials
A. Preliminary Conference
Counsel should expect to meet with the Court prior to the start of any trial or hearing to discuss things like voir dire in jury trials, Motions in Limine, timing of witnesses, proof, etc., and any other potential trouble spots.
B. Unanticipated Trial Issues
If you have reason to anticipate that a difficult question of law or evidence will arise during trial, counsel should alert his or her opponent and the Court should be supplied with a memorandum of law on the issue as soon as feasibly possible before the commencement of trial.
C. Voir Dire
Usually, counsel will conduct voir dire but it will be done on the record in the presence of the Court. If disputes arise, the Court will handle them, usually in Chambers. The Court prefers that counsel cooperate to expedite voir dire including the striking procedure. If you are taking too long, the Court will take over the process. If individual voir dire is requested, the Court shall establish the terms under which it is to be conducted.
D. Court Seating
i. Under local practice, the party with the burden of proof is seated at the counsel table closest to the jury box or witness stand.
ii. If there is a request for more than a total of two counsel tables, or any other special requests for seating, visual aids, such as TV/video equipment, etc., please notify the Court Administrator's Office at least two weeks before the scheduled date for the trial or hearing.
iii. Only counsel and parties, if desired, shall sit at counsel table. Witnesses shall sit in the spectator section or in the hall, unless otherwise authorized by the Court. If any party desires sequestration, that motion shall be made at the outset of the trial or hearing. If sequestration is ordered, all witnesses for all parties will likely be sequestered. Counsel will be responsible for informing their non-party witnesses that they should remain outside of the courtroom until called and that they should not discuss their testimony with other witnesses until the trial or hearing is concluded.
iv. No food or beverage may be brought to counsel table or into the courtroom. Counsel may, however, have water glasses and pitchers at counsel table. Arrangements should be made with the tipstaff on duty.
E. Decorum of Counsel
i. Counsel shall dress in an appropriate and professional manner. The trial or hearing shall at all times be conducted in a dignified and formal manner. Counsel shall not raise their voice any higher than is necessary to be clearly heard by the Court, witnesses and the jury. Always address the Court and not one another. Conversations between counsel are permitted only to expedite the trial and should be avoided in the presence of the Judge and jury. Counsel should never act or speak disrespectfully to the Court or to opposing counsel in any manner.
ii. Counsel's demeanor should be one of courtesy and professionalism. Counsel shall not exhibit familiarity with the parties, jurors or opposing counsel. The use of first names should be avoided. During opening statements or closing arguments, no juror should be addressed individually or by name.
iii. Counsel are expected to rise when you addressing the Court.
F. Introduction of Counsel
At the outset of a hearing or a trial, counsel shall place on the record the complete caption of the case for the benefit of the Court Reporter. Counsel shall also state and spell their name, indicate any firm affiliation and state which party or parties they represent in the action.
G. Opening Statements
The purpose of the opening statement is to state briefly what counsel expects the evidence to show. Reference to the law will be permitted but in jury trials, it is only permitted to the extent that it will help the jury to understand what counsel expects to prove. It is not proper to use the opening statement to argue the case. Upon violation of any of these rules, the Court may, sua sponte, interrupt the opening statement and admonish counsel.
H. Objections to Questions
When objecting, counsel should only state "objection" and then give a brief statement of the legal grounds for the objection. Do not offer extensive argument or explanation unless requested to do so by the Court. Counsel will not be permitted to state additional reasons after the Court has ruled. Do not use objections for the purpose of making a speech, recapitulating testimony, or attempting to guide the witness.
I. Examination of Witnesses
i. Counsel should ordinarily conduct examination of witnesses while seated at counsel table. If counsel is more comfortable standing, counsel shall stand behind the counsel table. Do not approach a witness without specific permission. When permission is granted, please return to counsel table when the purpose of the permission is concluded.
ii. Have the witness state and spell their name for the Court Reporter's benefit.
iii. If a witness is to be examined on the basis of prior written statements made by the witness, and these statements have not therefore been received into evidence, the witness shall first be shown the statement and asked whether he or she acknowledges having made it. Thereafter, counsel may read the question(s) and answer(s) slowly and ask the witness if such was a correct reading.
iv. Witnesses should be treated with fairness and consideration; they should not be shouted at, ridiculed, or abused in any manner. Even tough cross-examination can be done in a civilized and professional manner.
v. Witnesses and parties should be instructed to wear proper attire to Court. Shorts, tank tops, etc., are not permitted attire. Witnesses or parties not properly attired may be excluded from the courtroom.
vi. Avoid the use of argumentative questions when questioning an opposing party. Keep your questions clear and to the point.
vii. If a witness was on the stand at a recess or adjournment, the witness should be on the stand ready to proceed when Court is resumed. Counsel are reminded that they may not discuss a witness' testimony with him or her once that witness has begun testifying until the witness is excused. Make sure that you do not run out of witnesses. If you are out of witnesses and there is more than a brief delay, the Court may determine that counsel is resting. If there is going to be a problem with the scheduling of any witness(es), inform the Court at the preliminary conference and at the beginning of that day's proceedings.
If counsel is going to cross-examine a witness on the basis of a deposition, first give a copy of the deposition to the witness. Then allow the witness to read the deposition or the portion at issue and to say whether they previously gave that testimony. Once this procedure is complete, cross-examination may proceed.
i. Be sure that exhibits are marked BEFORE the trial begins. Arrange with the Court Reporter to have your exhibits marked at a time when it will not delay the proceedings. Do not ask the court reporter to give up his/her break to mark your exhibits.
ii. Except where impractical, copies of the exhibits should be provided to all other counsel. The jury should not see any exhibit before it has been admitted into evidence. Counsel should not unnecessarily request to have exhibits published to the jury.
iii. Exhibits may be moved into evidence at any time during one's own case, once the proper foundation is laid. It is not necessary to hold all exhibits until the end of your case and move them at that time.
iv. Each counsel should keep a list of exhibits and should keep track of when each exhibit has been admitted into evidence. Exhibits admitted into evidence should be delivered to the Court's Minute Clerk.
v. Counsel should refer to an exhibit, by exhibit number. Witnesses should be asked to do the same.
L. Other Courtroom Tools
i. Documents such as admissions, pleadings, requests for admissions, statements or answers of parties contained in depositions and interrogatories, etc., can be very useful to the presentation of one's case. However, they are not part of the evidence unless moved and admitted as such.
ii. If planning to use videotapes or similar items, be sure they are rewound and be sure to review any objections made on them with the Judge ahead of time.
iii. Although jury views are not encouraged, they may be done with advance arrangements by counsel with the Court when essential to a case. Highly detailed photographs are preferred and can prove just as informative.
M. Side Bar Conferences
Side bar conferences should be infrequent and should be sought only when necessary.
N. Court Reporter
i. The Court Reporter is under the control of the Court. Counsel should not issue instructions or make requirements to the reporter. Counsel should direct their requests to the Court, and if appropriate, the Court will issue instructions to the Reporter.
ii. Counsel should instruct all person who will testify that it is extremely important that they speak clearly, slowly and loud enough to be heard by the Court, the Court Reporter and all counsel. They should also be instructed on the need to avoid talking while another person is talking.
O. Points for Charge and Closing Arguments
i. A charge conference will always be held prior to closing arguments in jury trials. Points for charge should be submitted in writing prior to closing arguments. At a minimum, you should supply a list (by number) of the standard jury instructions that you want read to the jury. Give a copy to opposing counsel as soon as possible so intelligent objections can be made at the conference. Ordinarily, standard jury instructions are given. However, if special or unusual issues or rules of law are at issue, written points should be submitted, with citations of authority.
ii. All exceptions to the Court's charge must be placed on the record before the jury is dismissed for deliberations.
iii. The Court will seek counsel's agreement on the amount of time for closing arguments and will hold counsel to the time limit set. Counsel with the burden of proof should be sure to reserve time from their closing to use for rebuttal.
i. You should contact the Court Reporter involved with the hearing directly to make any requests for transcripts. Please get the name of the Court Reporter in any case from them at the time of the hearing. If you need a transcript and you do not have the name of the Court Reporter, you should review the Court sheet in the file to obtain it. If there is not Court sheet you can contact the Judge's secretary to try to obtain it. You will need to provide the date and location of the hearing.
ii. A transcript is not considered ordered until you contact the Court Reporter directly and make any payment arrangements required.
iii. When an appeal is filed you will need to send an Order for Transcript directly to the Court Reporter, file a copy and send a copy to the Judge.
i. Proposed Findings of Fact and Conclusions of Law can be very helpful in non-jury trials and are highly encouraged. They should be submitted in writing and on disk in Microsoft Word format.
ii. Counsel should exchange their lists of experts and the substance of their testimony prior to the beginning of any trial or hearing, or else risk having that expert barred from giving testimony. Prepare your expert examination, including proper factual foundations. On critical issues, experts should be specifically asked if they hold their opinion to a reasonable degree of certainty within their field of expertise.
iii. During jury deliberations, counsel shall let the tipstaff on duty know where they are, and shall be available, with their clients, to return to the Court on five minute's notice.
iv. From the time the jury is selected until it is discharged, counsel shall avoid ALL forms of contact with the individual jurors, and shall advise their parties and witnesses to do the same.