In 2012, the median time for the District of Columbia Court of Appeals to resolve cases was 352 days. It was the first time in a decade that number dropped below the one-year line, and as Chief Judge Eric Washington prepares for what will likely be another tem as chief, he says he wants to do better.
Washington is unopposed in his bid for a third four-year term leading the city's highest local court. He is widely credited with making the court more efficient, but complaints about case backlogs have persisted. In his application materials, Washington wrote that "fair and timely resolution" of cases remains a top priority.
According to court statistics, the median number of days it took the court to resolve cases dropped from 10-year highs of 505 days in 2002 and 2007 to 352 days last year. The average time it took to resolve cases remained higher—a sign that certain cases are still taking much longer—although the court also reached a 10-year low of 427 days last year.
Aaron Sokolow of Battino & Sokolow in Washington, who has appeared several times before the court in civil cases, said judges were making an effort to prioritize cases. He said the court tended to take longer with cases involving complex issues, but in less complicated matters, the court had issued a decision in as short as two weeks after oral arguments. "I think that's a good sign," he said.
Washington said in his application that he's encouraged judges to prioritize older cases and tried to use senior judges "more aggressively" to give active judges more time to handle opinions. He also said he's worked with institutional litigants—prosecutors and defenders, for example—to file certain motions earlier, a move that has helped the court better manage its calendar.
Thorn Pozen of Goldblatt Martin Porzen credited Washington with "dramatically" improving how quickly the court decided cases. Pozen, who previously served in the city's Office of the Attorney General, doesn't practice before the court, but said he watches for cases that might affect his practice, which involves advising clients on working with the city government.
"It's still a long way to go. I don't know it'll ever be where it should be," Pozen said. But, he added, "It's certainly moving in the right direction. It allows important decisions that affect the work I'm doing to be resolved in a reasonable time, if not a perfect time."
Barbara Kittay, a solo practitioner who handles court-appointed cases for criminal defendants, said that of approximately 20 cases she's handled over the past three years, she could think of two involving "extraordinary" amounts of time on appeal. "I think things move," said Kittay, who was with the U.S. Attorney's Office before she retired. "I try to manage clients' expectation that it doesn't happen right away."
Unlike many jurisdictions, the city doesn't have an intermediary court of appeals, meaning the bulk of the local court's docket is mandatory appeals from Superior Court and local administrative agencies. Last year, there were more than 2,000 new matters filed in the court, marking the first time in a decade that new filings climbed above 2,000.
Washington suggested in his application that it might be time to renew discussions about establishing an intermediate appeals court, something Congress had weighed beginning in 1993.
If approved for another term as chief judge, Washington said in his application that his other plans included launching a new electronic filing system, a move Sokolow said would be welcomed. Washington noted the court recently introduced a new case management system for judges that helped speed up the time it took to get case materials from the District of Columbia Superior Court.
Washington said he would continue to push for funding for an appellate mediation program. The court asked Congress to fund that program in recent years, with no success so far. Federally mandated budget cuts known as sequestration also forced the court to delay plans to introduce online video streaming of oral arguments, Washington wrote, but he said they hoped to begin streaming en banc arguments by the end of 2013.
Washington was first appointed to the court in 1999 after spending four years as a Superior Court judge. He has served as chief judge of the appeals court since 2005.
The District of Columbia Judicial Nomination Commission will decide whether to approve Washington for a third term. The commission—a seven-person body with members appointed by the White House, D.C. Council, mayor, D.C. Bar and U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia—is accepting public comments on Washington's performance through May 30, and will hold a public forum on June 5. Washington's current term as chief judge expires in August.
Chief Judge Eric Washington's application incorrectly stated the year Congress began considering the establishment of an intermediate court. This story was updated with the correct year.