When, why, and how to use a discovery referee in California

California Law Appointing Discovery Referee
Learn about how discovery referees are used in California and why they are pivotal for ensuring impartial oversight.

In California, the law regarding appointing a discovery referee is a crucial aspect of ensuring the discovery process in coordinated by an impartial party.

In litigation, a discovery referee can be both a strategic asset and a practical necessity. While most litigation professionals are familiar with the concept, the intricacies of effectively using a discovery referee often remain a bit of a mystery.

The truth is, however, discovery referees can dramatically streamline complex discovery processes, ensuring efficiency and fairness in legal proceedings.

Understanding when, why, and how to use a discovery referee is not just about adding another hammer to your legal toolkit; it’s about optimizing the path to resolution in cases where discovery can become unwieldy or contentious. 

As we explore this topic, we’ll try to shed some light on the practicalities and nuances that come with appointing and working with a discovery referee in California’s legal system.

What is a discovery referee?

At its core, a discovery referee is a neutral third party who is appointed to oversee and manage the discovery process in a legal case. Their appointment is governed by California Code of Civil Procedure sections 638 through 645.1, as well as the California Rules of Court, rules 3.900 through 3.932.

The role is designed to alleviate the burden on courts and parties by providing specialized, focused management of discovery, which can often be the most protracted, expensive, and complex part of litigation.

In California, discovery referees are typically appointed under two scenarios: by agreement of the parties or by court order.

Their primary function is to ensure that the discovery process is conducted efficiently, fairly, and in accordance with legal standards.

This involves managing requests for documents, resolving disputes over discovery requests, and sometimes even making binding decisions on certain discovery matters.

The use of discovery referees has become increasingly prevalent in cases where the volume of information is substantial or the nature of the discovery is particularly complex.

In those cases, a referee’s expertise not only aids in navigating through large volumes of documents and data but also in handling sensitive or specialized content, ensuring that the discovery process moves forward in a timely and effective manner.

California law for appointing a discovery referee

As noted, the process of appointing a discovery referee in California generally hinges on two distinct paths: mutual agreement by the parties involved or by a court order.

When parties agree to use a discovery referee, they have more control over selecting an individual whose expertise aligns with the specific needs of their case. This agreement must be formalized in writing and is typically included as part of the case management order.

On the other hand, a court can appoint a discovery referee when it deems necessary. This often happens in particularly complex cases that demand specialized management.

This is done under California Civil Procedure Code sections 639 and 640.

Importantly, the court’s appointment can even be made over the objections of parties in certain circumstances, particularly when the court determines that such an appointment is critical for efficient case management.

Once appointed, the discovery referee’s role is multifaceted. They will oversee all or a portion of the discovery proceedings, addressing and resolving disputes, setting deadlines, and ensuring compliance with discovery obligations. 

Discovery referees have their benefits

As a former California litigator, I can attest to the fact that using a discovery referee in California litigation offers several significant benefits. The most prominent is efficiency.

Discovery referees can expedite the discovery process, resolve disputes, and manage inquiries more swiftly than a court might, due to their focused role and specialized knowledge (not to mention the fact that California judges are severely overburdened and loath to spend time on endless discovery motions).

This efficiency can be particularly valuable in complex cases with extensive discovery needs.

Another advantage is expertise. Discovery referees often bring specialized experience and knowledge to the table, making them well-suited to handle the technicalities and complexities that can arise during the discovery process.

Their expertise can be especially beneficial in cases involving intricate financial matters, technical data, or specialized areas of law.

Moreover, using a discovery referee can lead to more equitable outcomes. They provide a level of focused attention and neutrality that can help balance the scales in contentious discovery disputes and that the process remains fair for all kinds of litigants.

This can be crucial in maintaining the integrity of the discovery process and, by extension, the broader legal system.

Discovery referees aren’t all wine and roses

While the benefits of using a discovery referee are substantial, there are challenges and considerations that law firms must navigate. 

One of the primary concerns is cost. Unlike traditional court-managed discovery, the parties in a case generally bear the cost of the discovery referee.

This can be a significant factor, especially for smaller firms or clients with limited budgets. Attorneys need to weigh the benefits of efficiency and expertise against the potential financial impact on their clients.

Another consideration is the scope of authority granted to the discovery referee. While they can make the discovery process smoother, their decisions are generally subject to court review.

This dual layer of oversight requires attorneys to remain vigilant and prepared to address any objections or appeals that may arise from the referee’s decisions.

Additionally, selecting the right discovery referee is crucial. The referee’s expertise and approach should align with the case’s specific needs – and you better believe the attorneys are going to fight over that alignment.

That said, misalignment can lead to inefficiencies or even greater conflicts, undermining the very benefits the referee is meant to provide. Therefore, it’s important for attorneys to conduct thorough due diligence when agreeing to or proposing a discovery referee.

Tips for making the best use of your referee

At the end of the day, the use of a discovery referee is just another form of Alternative Dispute Resolution (ADR).

Thus, let’s close this discussion by taking a look at what one of the big-hitters in the ADR world – JAMS – has to say about how litigants can most effectively use their discovery referees:

1. Select the right referee

Choose a discovery referee who is not only experienced but also enthusiastic about their role. Their expertise, especially in specific areas relevant to your case, can significantly influence the efficacy of the discovery process.

2. Drafting a detailed appointment order

If the parties have agreed to use a discovery referee, be sure to carefully craft the order of appointment or reference. This document should clearly delineate the referee’s duties, authority, and procedures for issuing, correcting, and reviewing orders.

3. Embrace flexibility and informality

Encourage the referee to operate flexibly and informally where appropriate. Methods like letter briefs and telephonic hearings can save time and resources – cost savings your client will appreciate.

4. Leverage technology

Opt for a referee who is technologically adept. This is particularly important in cases involving substantial electronic discovery.

5. Adopt a collaborative approach

Work collaboratively with the referee from the beginning. Establish regular communication, such as bi-weekly or monthly conference calls, to ensure everyone remains on the same page.

6. Foster proactive engagement

Be proactive in engaging with the referee. Consult them as soon as a dispute arises, and focus on solving the problem at hand rather than getting bogged down in procedural complexities.

By remaining open to the appointment of a referee and implementing these tips, attorneys and legal professionals can effectively and efficiently navigate the discovery process, hopefully leading to a more streamlined and focused litigation process for their clients.


In California law , appointing a discovery referee is pivotal for ensuring impartial oversight in the discovery process. While the concept is familiar to litigation professionals, its effective utilization remains somewhat mysterious.

Discovery referees offer a dual role: strategic asset and practical necessity. By streamlining complex discovery processes, they uphold efficiency and fairness in legal proceedings.

Knowing when, why, and how to engage a discovery referee optimizes the path to case resolution, especially in cases where discovery becomes unwieldy or contentious.

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