In a rare public rebuke, a judicial review commission found District of Columbia Superior Court Judge Natalia Combs Greene made "inappropriate" comments to litigants in court and at times behaved in a manner that was "rude" and "intimidating."
The D.C. Commission on Judicial Disabilities and Tenure received "numerous" complaints about Greene's "discourteous and impatient treatment of litigants," especially those without a lawyer, when she served in the busy landlord and tenant court, according to a Nov. 13 letter from the commission's chairwoman, U.S. District Judge Gladys Kessler, to Superior Court Chief Judge Lee Satterfield.
The commission ultimately recommended Greene for appointment as a senior judge following her retirement earlier this year. Kessler wrote that Greene's positive traits as a judge and "significant contribution to the Court" outweighed concerns about her temperament in certain cases. Still, the commission suggested she not be assigned in the future to landlord and tenant or other high volume calendars.
"Whether it was the sheer volume of cases, the pace of that assignment, or the special needs of the litigants who regularly appear in that Court, the Commission believes Judge Combs Greene was not well suited for a Landlord & Tenant assignment," Kessler wrote.
Greene could not immediately be reached today for comment. She retired in September after serving 15 years on the bench and sought appointment as a senior judge.
President Bill Clinton appointed Greene to Superior Court as an associate judge in 1998. Greene started her career at the Federal Trade Commission and as an assistant U.S. attorney in Washington. She moved to San Francisco in 1987, working at the firm Howard, Rice, Nemerovski, Canady, Falk & Rabkin. She eventually moved back to Washington, working in the U.S. Department of Justice and in the U.S. Attorney's Office for the District of Columbia, where she oversaw office training and served as special counsel to the U.S. attorney.
Greene served in the Superior Court civil division for at least the past six years, according to Judge Melvin Wright, the division's presiding judge. As is the case for all civil division judges, Greene served weekly rotations in the landlord and tenant court over the years. Wright declined to comment on the judicial disabilities and tenure commission's letter.
Wright said court officials are still deciding judicial assignments for 2014, so he did not know what types of cases Greene would handle next year as a senior judge. She last served in landlord and tenant court in August. In recent months, Wright said Greene was finishing up pending cases on her docket and handling other cases on an as-needed basis.
According to Kessler's letter, the commission received comments praising Greene's work, knowledge of the law, service to the court through internal committees, and commitment to the community. However, Kessler wrote the commission would be "remiss" if it didn't address the complaints regarding Greene's temperament in landlord and tenant court.
"It is clear from our review of the cases brought to our attention, that Judge Combs Greene's demeanor was oftentimes less than courteous, and on occasion even rude and intimidating; moreover some of her comments during those proceedings were exceedingly inappropriate. This causes the Commission great concern," Kessler wrote.
According to the letter, Greene accepted the commission's findings and acknowledged that her behavior in certain instances violated the Code of Judicial Conduct. She agreed to address the concerns about her conduct if she became a senior judge.
Landlord and tenant is one of the busiest branches in Superior Court, if not the busiest, with new cases making up more than a third of all new matters filed in Superior Court in 2012. According to the most recent data tracking unrepresented litigants in Superior Court from 2005 to 2009, 97 percent of respondents in landlord and tenant cases did not have a lawyer.
Acknowledging the growing number of litigants coming to court without counsel, the court adopted a new version of the Code of Judicial Conduct in early 2012 that encouraged judges to take a more "affirmative role" in making sure unrepresented individuals understood what was happening in their cases.
Kessler said in her letter that the commission was "aware of the enormous challenges judges face while presiding in high volume Courts such as Landlord & Tenant." Still, she wrote, "[d]espite the frustration a judge may feel, a raised voice, impatient tone, or off-handed remark only makes the situation more stressful and tense for the litigants and more difficult for the judge."
There were no exceptions to the rule requiring judges to be "patient, dignified, and courteous" to litigants, lawyers and anyone else they dealt with on an official basis, Kessler wrote. "Every litigant deserves to be treated with the utmost respect."