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The campaign for chief judge of the Washington, D.C., Superior Court has traditionally been waged behind closed doors at law offices and in judges’ chambers at the courthouse. This time, it’s different. With the courts plagued by persistent internal administrative problems and suffering a loss of fiscal credibility on Capitol Hill, the consensus among the candidates is that the old way is no longer the right way. The seven sitting judges seeking to lead the court sat for an extraordinary public meeting last week. In a session lasting more than two hours, the judges discussed their ideas for reform and the problems of the past before about 60 criminal defense lawyers, local criminal justice leaders, court staff, and fellow jurists. Center stage at Georgetown University Law Center on July 12 were Judges Michael Rankin, Steffen Graae, George Mitchell, Rufus King III, Geoffrey Alprin, Herbert Dixon Jr., and Lee Satterfield. The evening featured five-minute opening statements from each candidate and then questions from the audience. The format was extremely formal. The questions were screened by panel organizers, and each judge was given an opportunity to respond to each question, leaving only enough time for seven queries. But it did allow for the judges to explain their priorities and to try to distinguish themselves from their competition. “It was an opportunity for the bar and especially those lawyers who practice before the court to question the justices on what affects them,” says Mark Tuohey III, a partner at Washington, D.C.-based Vinson & Elkins who moderated the event. The forum was put together by Richard Gilbert, president of the D.C. Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers, and leaders of the Superior Court Trial Lawyers Association and the Family Division Trial Lawyers Association. The decision of who will lead Superior Court following the upcoming retirement of Chief Judge Eugene Hamilton will be made by the seven-member D.C. Judicial Nomination Commission, which solicits comments from various bar associations, judges, lawyers, politicos, and the public. The commission is expected to render its decision by the end of September. By agreeing to attend the meeting, the candidates signaled that the court was moving in a new direction. Still, it was obvious that the judges were uncomfortable having to campaign in public. “We’re used to sitting up high and not used to being questioned this way, which may be making some of us a bit nervous,” Graae noted in his opening remarks. “WE SEEM TO HAVE LOST OUR WAY” Adding to the discomfort level was the fact that each judge was publicly admitting that the court has had serious administrative problems under Hamilton’s leadership. Nearly every candidate acknowledged that Hamilton failed to involve division managers in such key court functions as budget development and policy-making, and vowed to change that approach. “For the last two and a half years, we seem to have lost our way and our stature,” Alprin said. “My idea is to let managers manage so as not to let the chief judge micromanage.” Several judges explained that the only way the court could turn itself around is if the chief judge lets all levels of court managers and employees have a say in the administrative process. “Without cooperation, we’re not going to tackle the problems you’ve heard about tonight,” Satterfield said. Overall, the platforms were similar. Each judge said he would work to improve relations with Capitol Hill and the White House, reform the program that provides private attorneys to the poor, and ensure that nonjudicial employees get a much-needed pay raise. But some came out with specific plans for how to meet these goals. Graae, King, and Alprin said they would implement a five-year strategic plan. Dixon noted that he supports long-term planning as well. Rankin said he would mimic the way John “Jay” Carver, director of the Court Services and Offender Supervision Agency, runs his shop and works with Congress. “Jay Carver has set goals and standards [for his agency], and I think he’s been forthright to these goals and standards,” said Rankin, pointing out that Congress was supporting a $27 million increase in the offender supervision agency’s budget. “He sure came up with a favorable response to that approach.” Rankin, Mitchell, and King said they would consider hiring an in-house staffer with ties to Capitol Hill. Dixon said he would take advantage of the number of local lawyers who said they would help the court improve relations with federal lawmakers. “All the next chief judge needs to do is reach out to what’s already there waiting for us,” Dixon said. In order to alleviate the chronic problems the court has had with administering the program that provides private lawyers to indigent defendants under the Criminal Justice Act (CJA), several judges said they would try to get the program moved to either the D.C. Public Defender Service or another agency. “It should be taken out of the courthouse and put into an independent agency that could oversee and fight for the defense bar to increase hourly rates and services needed to prepare a proper representation,” said Graae. Some of the other issues discussed were technology reforms and expanding the authority of hearing commissioners. Dixon and King, members of the court’s Technology Committee, claim that electronic filing and combining the court’s 18 separate computer systems could free up caseloads and staff. Dixon and Graae said they would push for changes in the title and role of hearing commissioners so that judges would be called upon less to resolve civil disputes. A BURST OF ENTHUSIASM The most lively character of the evening was Judge George Mitchell, who has been on the bench for more than 18 years. During his opening statement, Mitchell was the only candidate to rise from his chair and proclaim in a loud voice that he should be the next chief judge. “This is the best courthouse in the country,” Mitchell exclaimed. “We should not hide ourselves. We should improve, but not hide our heads in shame.” Despite his enthusiasm, Mitchell seemed out of touch with some of the key issues. When asked whether he believed that the CJA program should be managed by an agency independent of the court, Mitchell said he thought indigent defendants should be given a list of lawyers to choose from. “I believe a person should have a say-so in who their lawyer is; even indigent people should have some choice in who their lawyer is,” Mitchell said. Washington, D.C. criminal defense lawyer Cary Clennon says that, by attending the public session, the judges proved it was important to show some accountability to the community and the criminal defense bar. Still, Clennon adds, no judge appeared the clear front-runner. “For me, a couple [of judges] distinguished themselves as being unacceptable,” Clennon says. “But of the four or five that demonstrated capabilities, it was hard to distinguish among them.”

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