A look at the group that reviews the conduct of D.C. judges


Members of the Commission on Judicial Disabilities and Tenure, from left, Hank Schuelke, Judge Gladys Kessler and Bill Lightfoot discuss complaints against judges and attorneys. (Bill O'Leary/The Washington Post)

It was one of the few public reprimands of a D.C. judge in years.

After receiving complaints about D.C. Superior Court Judge Natalia Combs Greene during her time overseeing cases in landlord/tenant court, the board that oversees the conduct of many city judges issued a scolding. 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,” the board wrote.

The November letter offers a window into the work of the ­seven-member Commission on Judicial Disabilities and Tenure, which oversees the conduct of D.C. Superior Court and D.C. Court of Appeals judges. The commission is the mouthpiece — the ombudsman, if you will — for individuals who have come before the judges and feel they were treated unprofessionally.

“Our role is to provide protection for the public,” U.S. District Judge Gladys Kessler, the board’s chairwoman, said.

“We believe the citizens of the District have a right to be treated with dignity and respect. That’s what they deserve,” added Hank Schuelke, the commission’s special counsel.

Despite its criticisms of Combs Greene, the commission found that her work over a 16-year career on the bench overshadowed her challenges with the landlord/tenant division and recommended she be elevated to a senior judge position. On Monday, Combs Greene is scheduled to be appointed to join the court’s 30 senior judges.

“I’m glad the commission decided to recommend me for senior status. What I read in the letter was mostly favorable,” Combs Greene, who was appointed by President Bill Clinton, said in an interview. She declined to comment on the commission’s criticism.

The D.C. commission is the only one nationwide that oversees judges in one city; elsewhere, such bodies operate statewide, according to the American Judicature Society’s Center for Judicial Ethics. The commission examines complaints, which remain confidential, filed via its Web site or directly with the board.

Last year, the commission received about 60 complaints about issues ranging from inappropriate demeanor and temperament to abuse. That’s up from 30 complaints in 2009.

Many of the complaints, Kessler said, are found to be unmerited after the board investigates the case, listens to recordings of hearings and talks to participants. But the commissioners keep track of such comments to look for a “pattern of conduct.”

Kessler, a former D.C. Superior Court judge, and other commissioners praised the Superior Court as one of the best “urban courts in the country,” noting it has focused on the needs of residents by creating programs such as mental-health and drug courts. She said that the complaints against judges in the District have not risen to the point that serious disciplinary action, such as suspension, has been needed and that the commission has focused mostly on demeanor.

The commission doesn’t overturn cases or review a judge’s rulings. That’s up to the Court of Appeals. But if a judge has a history of being late to the bench, making questionable comments or failing to understand changes in law, the commission may raise concerns.

Its reports carry some weight, especially when a judge applies for reappointment, which is needed to continue after 15 years on the bench, or when a judge seeks a senior position with the court.

“I think it’s fair to say, you never want the commission questioning a judge’s conduct, and you definitely don’t want them issuing a public criticism. That is a sure way to have a judge’s career path permanently derailed,” said one judge who spoke on the condition of ­anonymity because of concerns about affecting the process.

It’s rare for the commission to issue public statements criticizing a judge or find that a judge is “unqualified.” Often, Kessler said, if the commission concludes there is a problem, members will meet with the judge, or the chief judge, explain their concerns and alert the judge that unless changes are made, the commission likely will not recommend reappointment.

Since 2001, Kessler said, six judges have retired after being told they would not be recommended for reappointment. She declined to identify them.

But in some instances, the commission has made its concerns public. In 2006, the commission concluded that Tim Murphy, a senior judge who had been with the court for 40 years, was suffering from a “cognitive mental disability” that would not allow him to continue to perform as a judge, and it gave him an unfavorable recommendation.

And in 2002, the commission declined to recommend Evelyn E.C. Queen for reappointment as senior judge. Queen was highly criticized in 2000 when she oversaw the case of Brianna Blackmond, a 23-month-old foster child whom Queen ordered reunited with her mother. Two weeks later, Brianna’s mother was charged with fatally beating the child.

The commission wrote at the time that Queen was “inattentive to the critical details of her position with, at times, tragic consequences for both the life and the liberty of citizens of the District of Columbia.”

Both Queen and Murphy retired.

Sometimes, the commission supports a judge’s application for senior status even when it reprimands the judge publicly.

In 2008, the commission criticized D.C. Superior Court Judge John H. Bayly Jr. after he ordered an attorney with the D.C. Public Defender Service to be locked up during a 2007 hearing. After meeting with Bayly and the attorney and listening to the transcript of the hearing, the commission called the incident an “extraordinary exercise of judicial power.”

Still, the commission recommended that Bayly be appointed to a senior judge position. Kessler said that the group reviewed Bayly’s entire career on the bench and found that the 2007 incident was not part of a pattern of behavior.

“We made it clear that it was unlike him. It was an aberration. But you can’t do something like that,” Kessler said.

She said she encourages anyone with concerns about judges to let the commission know, through its Web site, cjdt.dc.gov; by e-mail at dc.cjdt@dc.gov; or by calling 202-727-1363. “Our job is to make recommendations. And we make those recommendations based in part on what we hear from the public,” Kessler said.

Keith Alexander covers crime, specifically D.C. Superior Court cases for The Washington Post. He has covered dozens of crime stories from Banita Jacks, the Washington woman charged with killing her four daughters, to the murder trial of slain federal intern Chandra Levy.
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