The number of attorneys applying for judgeships on the city's local courts is up, as is the number of complaints filed against sitting judges, according to testimony this morning before the District of Columbia Council.
Between 31 to 38 attorneys applied for vacancies on the District of Columbia Superior Court in fiscal year 2011, according to U.S. District Judge Emmet Sullivan, chairman of the District of Columbia Judicial Nomination Commission. In fiscal year 2010, vacancies on the same bench drew 21 to 32 applicants.
The number of complaints filed against judges on Superior Court and the District of Columbia Court of Appeals grew from 41 complaints in fiscal year 2010 to 54 complaints in 2011, according to U.S. District Judge Gladys Kessler, chairwoman of the District of Columbia Commission on Judicial Disabilities and Tenure.
Sullivan and Kessler, testifying at an annual performance oversight hearing before the council’s Committee on the Judiciary, offered the same explanation for the jump – a growing awareness of the courts’ inner-workings among the public and the D.C. Bar.
Sullivan told committee Chairman Phil Mendelson (D-At Large) that the nomination commission has made more of an effort to meet with attorneys representing a cross-section of the Bar – from private practice to the Justice Department. “We’re prepared to meet with any group, any individual who is interested in what we do,” he said.
The number of applicants from the city’s larger law firms is noticeably up, Sullivan said, a group that historically hasn’t applied because, among other reasons, they take a significant pay cut in becoming a judge. Sullivan said he found that group’s growing interest “encouraging.”
Sullivan also said that the commission is preparing to consider applications later this year for chief judge of Superior Court. Current Chief Judge Lee Satterfield’s four-year term will expire Sept. 30; the commission will advertise the vacancy in the next few months, at which point Satterfield can apply along with any other judges interested in the job.
With 24 judicial complaints filed in the first four months of the 2012 fiscal year, Kessler said the disabilities and tenure commission is on track to exceed its 2011 numbers. Executive Director Cathaee Hudgins testified that she thought complaints were up because “there’s more awareness of the commission.” Kessler jumped in and added, “which is good.”
“We don’t want the judges to think we’re out there stirring up complaints, but we do want the public to know about us,” Kessler said, adding that the commission puts more information on its Web site than in years past.
According to written testimony submitted to the committee, of the 54 complaints received in 2011, 41 were dismissed after initial review; 37 for lack of jurisdiction, and four for lack of merit. Of the other 13 cases, 10 were dismissed after an investigation and one resulted in “an informal conference with the judge involved.” The testimony did not specify which judge.
Of the 24 complaints filed so far in 2012, 14 were dismissed for lack of jurisdiction, two were dismissed for lack of merit and the other eight are still pending.
Today’s annual performance oversight hearing is the first of three scheduled before the judiciary committee over the next few weeks. The next hearing is set for Feb. 29.