Like their federal court colleagues, District of Columbia court officials approached the end of 2012 with a nervous eye on Capitol Hill. If lawmakers fail to reach a budget deal by the end of the year, sequestration — mandated spending cuts — will axe 8.2 percent of dollars going to the federally funded local courts.
In the event the federal government falls over the so-called “fiscal cliff,” the D.C. courts would lose about $19 million, according to a September report by the Office of Management and Budget.
“Court leadership is developing contingency plans for that eventuality and will ensure the DC Courts are prepared to maintain operations and continue to serve the residents of the District of Columbia,” courts spokeswoman Leah Gurowitz said in a written statement.
Superior Court Chief Judge Lee Satterfield deferred questions about sequestration plans to the executive office, but he did say that plans to expand the downtown courthouse would depend on how much money is available. “Our goal is not to lose people,” he said, noting that Congress historically has “been very good to us in terms of funding.”
Very good, perhaps, but not ideal. Even if lawmakers reached a deal to avoid sequestration, Congress approved a 2013 budget for the D.C. court system that would provide more than $100 million less than what was requested.
Still, the city’s local courts haven’t faced the extreme budget pressures afflicting state courts elsewhere, said Priscilla Skillman, assistant director of the nonprofit Council for Court Excellence. If sequestration does happen, she said, officials could draw on a variety of blueprints from other states on how to handle severe cuts.
As the courts braced for a loss in funds, they made gains when it came to judicial vacancies. Six Superior Court judges were sworn in between late 2011 and December: Jennifer Di Toro, Yvonne Williams, Danya Dayson, Peter Krauthamer, John McCabe and Kimberley Knowles.
Criminal defense proved a popular path. Five D.C. Public Defender Service alumni joined the courts: Superior Court judges Di Toro, Williams and Krauthamer and Court of Appeals judges Corinne Beckwith and Catharine Easterly. Dayson’s practice included criminal defense and family law.
The appeals court saw major turnover, with three judges joining the nine-person bench. Besides Beckwith and Easterly, Judge Roy McLeese III, the former appellate division chief of the U.S. attorney’s office, joined his predecessor, Judge John Fisher, on the bench. “The new judges are extremely bright, understand the nature of collegial decision-making and have fit in quite well at the court so far,” said Chief Judge Eric Washington. “We’ll have to see over time whether the addition…changes the court’s jurisprudence in any meaningful way.”
Three Superior Court nominees were pending as of press time. U.S. Department of Justice lawyer Donna Murphy was nominated in February 2011 but her confirmation has been blocked by Senator Jim DeMint (R-S.C.) for as-yet-unspecified reasons. Her road to approval might run smoother once DeMint leaves in January to run The Heritage Foundation.
Rainey Brandt, special counsel to the Superior Court chief judge, and Robert Okun, chief of the special proceedings division of the U.S. attorney’s office, were nominated this year. Murphy, Brandt and Okun will have to be nominated again if they’re not confirmed by year’s end.
“It’s a little frustrating that the Congress isn’t acting on anything, but the court seems to be handling it pretty well,” said Betty Ballester, president of the Superior Court Trial Lawyers Association.
Besides new faces on the bench, both courts faced change at the start of 2012 with the release of revised rules of judicial conduct. Eric Angel, executive director of the Legal Aid Society of the District of Columbia, said he was excited that the rules encouraged judges to take a more “affirmative role” in making sure that litigants who come to court without a lawyer understand what’s going on.
“It’ll take a long time for that to be integrated into every single judge’s mind-set, but it’s a very important ethics rule,” Angel said. Working with pro se litigants is “what judges end up doing a lot of, even if it’s not what they were thinking when they signed up.”
Superior Court also rang in 2012 with the expansion of community courts. Beginning in January, most misdemeanor cases were assigned to judges based on where the alleged crimes were committed, a move inspired by the success of a similar program for cases east of the Anacostia River. The idea was that judges and lawyers could better address systemic issues including unemployment or drug abuse that might be at the root of lower-level crime in different areas of the city.
“It seems to be working well,” said Mark Rollins of Washington’s Rollins & Chan. “A lot of it has to do with the cooperation of the U.S. attorney’s office and the courts. By streamlining cases, I think they’re saving taxpayers thousands and thousands of dollars.” Assistant U.S. Attorney Kacie Weston said the change had helped prosecutors identify repeat offenders and determine whether diversion programs — dismissing cases if defendants met certain conditions and did community service — were appropriate.
Satterfield said that next year court officials will look into decentralizing misdemeanor arraignments to community courts, to get diversion options on the table sooner. In 2013, he said, the court will try to tackle the growing number of probate and domestic violence cases; one judge was moved from the criminal division to probate and a magistrate judge was assigned to help with domestic violence and civil cases.
Across the street at the appeals court, Washington said, court officials will proceed in 2013 with plans to develop electronic filing as well as a pilot project to offer video streaming of oral arguments.
Zoe Tillman can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.