If appointed for a second term, District of Columbia Superior Court Chief Judge Lee Satterfield pledged at a public forum last night to improve how the court serves the public, from bringing down the time it takes for judges to resolve cases to staggering scheduling so litigants don't waste time waiting.
Satterfield is running unopposed for a second four-year term, but the D.C. Judicial Nomination Commission – the body that appoints the chief judges of Superior Court and the D.C. Court of Appeals – went ahead with plans for a candidate forum.
Before taking questions, Satterfield promoted a few of his first-term accomplishments, including expanding the popular East of the River community court program citywide and creating a diversion program for juvenile offenders with mental health issues.
"The job gives you the opportunity to help other people," he said, adding that with every new initiative he and other court officials ask if what they're doing "will benefit the community."
Questions from community members and court-watchers in attendance ranged from why the court hasn't published data on its performance and how judges consider community impact statements to why it takes so long to move through security into the courthouse in the morning.
Kathy Henderson, a Ward 5 resident, asked Satterfield if judges were considering community impact statements submitted before sentencing in criminal cases. Victim impact statements have long been a part of criminal sentencing proceedings, but beginning in 2011, the District of Columbia Council passed a law allowing community members to offer statements as well.
Satterfield said that while judges are aware of the new law – he crafted an administrative order spelling out the procedures for submitting such statements to the court – it may take time for judges to integrate them into proceedings. "It just takes time when you have to change a practice that you've been doing for so long," he said.
June Kress, executive director of local nonprofit Council for Court Excellence, asked if the court planned to make internal performance data available to the public. Satterfield said that while the court looks at its data monthly, biannually and annually, they don't plan to release it any time soon. He added that judges have shared some general data with community members, such as the fact that it's been a year and a half since a major felony case had to be continued because a judge wasn't available.
Satterfield, who cited the Code of Judicial Conduct in declining to answer questions about specific cases and local politics, did talk about the court's relationship with the local school system, which he said had not always been positive. In response to a question from Ward 7 resident and Advisory Neighborhood Commission leader Mary Jackson about what could be done to improve local schools, he said he hoped to meet with schools Chancellor Kaya Henderson to talk about "resistance" he had encountered from some officials about bringing judges into schools.
In response to a complaint about delays posed by court security, Satterfield said that while he understood the frustration – lines can stretch well outside the main courthouse entrance by around 9:30 a.m. – he preferred to err on the side of caution. He cited data that on a given day, security officers find and confiscate seven knives, 22 tools, 10 pairs of scissors, two box cutters, 1 mace or pepper spray container and 23 other items that could pose a safety risk. On July 6, he said officers removed a loaded handgun from the bag of someone entering the courthouse.
Other topics included jury selection – Satterfield said he was disappointed with data showing only 59 percent of potential jurors were used when they came to court – and the expansion of satellite "drop-in" centers that are part of the court's Balance and Restorative Justice program for juvenile offenders. Mary Williams, an attorney and resident of Southwest Washington, told Satterfield about complaints from her neighbors about the latest center that opened in her neighborhood. Satterfield said he regretted not doing more outreach in advance, but hoped "to prove to your community that we're going to benefit."
Satterfield's first term will expire Sept. 30. The commission is accepting comments from members of the D.C. Bar and the general public through July 18.
National Law Journal photo by Zoe Tillman.