At a hearing this morning for the District of Columbia Council's judiciary committee, U.S. District Judge Gladys Kessler said that the District of Columbia Commission on Judicial Disabilities and Tenure would consider whether they could release more details about dismissed complaints to parties involved.
The commission investigates complaints filed against judges in the District of Columbia Superior Court and District of Columbia Court of Appeals. It also reviews judges up for reappointment and judges seeking senior status. The complaint review process is confidential, and complainants whose cases are dismissed generally don't receive detailed information about the commission's investigation.
Kessler, who chairs the commission, appeared before committee Chairman Phil Mendelson (D-At Large) today for an annual budget oversight hearing. Mendelson, in light of testimony from one witness who complained about the lack of transparency, asked Kessler to explain why the commission couldn't release more information about the extent of its investigation to complainants.
Commission Executive Director Cathaee Hudgins said the commission sends letters with fairly standardized responses explaining to the complainant that their complaint was dismissed for either lack of merit, lack of jurisdiction or because it’s a matter that should go to the District of the Columbia Court of Appeals. The fourth type of letter says that action has been taken on the complaint.
Mendelson said he understood the need for brevity and confidentiality, but wondered if it wasn’t unfair to the complainant that “there’s such mystery about what’s not being said.”
Kessler said the commission would discuss whether they could release any other information explaining their decision or the extent of any investigation. She defended the confidentiality surrounding the process, though, saying it was designed to protect complainants, who may be lawyers that appear in court, as well as judges.
The discussion began with testimony from Henok Araya, who complained that the commission was using the “lack of jurisdiction” explanation as an excuse to dismiss complaints and not to investigate judicial misconduct. Araya also complained specifically about judges who have trouble hearing or who use hearing aids in court.
Kessler confirmed at the hearing that Araya had submitted a complaint against Superior Court Senior Judge John Bayly Jr. that was ultimately dismissed; she did not discuss the details of the complaint, except to say that the commission determined it was “without merit.” Bayly was previously reprimanded by the commission in 2008 for his decision to detain a public defender appearing before him.
During this morning’s hearing, Kessler also shared that in fiscal year 2012, the commission had already received 52 complaints, which “is a very large increase for us.” She said the jump was most likely due to more public awareness of the commission’s existence, and said they were walking a fine line between trying to raise awareness and actively promoting the submission of complaints, which would be a problem.