Declaratory judgment actions have existed for a century, and most jurisdictions — including over half the states — allow litigants to expedite claims for declaratory judgment through a mechanism known as a "speedy hearing." Despite the long history and widespread availability of this mechanism, however, there remains a "dearth" of case law explaining when parties may seek, and courts may order, a speedy hearing in a declaratory judgment case.1
Because of this absence of precedent, litigants in declaratory judgment cases often struggle to understand when a request for speedy hearing will be taken seriously by the courts and just how "speedy" a hearing may be. This article examines the available precedent to identify factors lawyers should consider when faced with a declaratory judgment action and the prospect of either pursuing or defending against a "speedy hearing."
History and Purpose of "Speedy Hearing" Provisions
In the early 1900s, lawmakers grew concerned that the traditional system of remedies — which typically required litigants to have incurred actual, compensable damages before filing suit — "harmed parties by forcing them to wait an unnecessarily long time before seeking relief."2 In response, state legislatures began authorizing declaratory judgment actions as early as 1919,3 and the Federal Declaratory Judgment Act followed in 1934.4 Mechanisms to seek "speedy hearings," although not universal, accompanied most of these reform efforts. Today, the federal rules, along with rules in 32 states and the District of Columbia, expressly permit speedy hearings in declaratory judgment actions.
In the federal courts, the procedural aspects of declaratory judgment are governed by Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 57 which, since its adoption in 1937, has provided for a "speedy hearing" or other form of expedited relief.5 According to the drafters of the rule, because "[a] declaratory judgment ... operates frequently as a summary proceeding," the speedy hearing mechanism allows "docketing the case for early hearing as on a motion."6 The provision allowing speedy hearings thus reflects one of the core purposes of declaratory judgment: to "afford a speedy and inexpensive method of adjudicating legal disputes ... and to settle legal rights and remove uncertainty and insecurity from legal relationships without awaiting a violation of the rights or a disturbance of the relationships."7
Three Considerations Courts Invoke To Address Requests for Speedy Hearings
Given the emphasis on speed and efficiency in declaratory judgment actions, it is surprising how infrequently Rule 57's speedy hearing provision and its state analogs are litigated. The few reported decisions that do interpret these provisions, however, reveal three considerations that courts have found relevant in deciding whether a speedy hearing is appropriate.
First and most important, a concrete need for urgency will increase the chances of a speedy hearing.
For example, in National Basketball Association v. Williams, the court ordered a speedy hearing to avoid casting a "legal cloud" over an upcoming NBA season.8 At issue was whether the college draft and salary caps, among other NBA policies, violated antitrust laws in the absence of a collective bargaining agreement between the NBA and its players association.9 Because the college draft and free agency were rapidly approaching, the court ordered an accelerated trial schedule to resolve the case and allow teams and players to "sign contracts and prepare for the upcoming season."10
1. See 10B Charles Alan Wright & Arthur R. Miller, Federal Practice & Procedure § 2752 (4th ed. 2019).
2. Robert T. Sherwin, Shoot First, Litigate Later: Declaratory Judgment Actions, Procedural Fencing, and Itchy Trigger Fingers, 70 Okla. L. Rev. 793, 801 (2018) (quoting Donald L. Doernberg & Michael B. Mushlin, The Trojan Horse: How the Declaratory Judgment Act Created a Cause of Action and Expanded Federal Jurisdiction While the Supreme Court Wasn't Looking, 36 UCLA L. Rev. 529, 552–53 (1989)).
3. See Wright & Miller supra note 1 §2752.
4. See 28 U.S.C. § 2201(a).
5. Fed. R. Civ. P. 57 (1938).
6. See Fed. R. Civ. P. 57 advisory committee notes (1937).
7. Beacon Const. Co., Inc. v. Matco Elec. Co., Inc., 521 F.2d 392, 397 (2d Cir. 1975) (internal quotation marks omitted).
8. 857 F. Supp. 1069, 1071 n.1 (S.D.N.Y. 1994), aff'd, 45 F.3d 684 (2d Cir. 1995).
9. Id. at 1071.
10. Id. at 1071 n.1.
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Originally Published by Law360
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