D.C. Superior Court top judge Satterfield seeks second term

As chief judge of D.C. Superior Court for the past four years, Lee F. Satterfield has overseen the legal proceedings and operations of the busiest courthouse in the nation’s capital.

And this week, Satterfield is likely to be tapped to lead that courthouse for another four years as he runs — unopposed — for a second term as chief.

For Satterfield, 53, the decision to run again comes after he developed mental health programs for juveniles and several other new initiatives, including a requirement that defendants convicted of misdemeanors perform community service in the neighborhoods where they were arrested. Satterfield is also the first chief judge to modernize courtrooms by installing high-tech video cameras, digital television screens and monitors.

Satterfield’s decision to run for a second term comes after confronting two health challenges in recent months. In September, Satterfield was speaking at a program in the courthouse when he suffered an irregular heartbeat, grabbed his chest and slid to the floor next to the podium. Three months later, a stroke left him hospitalized for nearly two weeks.

Satterfield says he’s healthy and ready for another term. His physician has certified to the court that he is healthy.


Lee F. Satterfield, Chief Judge of the D.C. Superior Court. (Jonathan Newton/The Washington Post)

The judge has declined repeated requests for an interview.

Satterfield has battled health issues in the past. As a teenager, he was stricken with cancer that caused his right leg to be amputated. He now uses a prosthesis.

Before he became a judge, Satterfield, a D.C. native, spent the early part of his law career in the U.S. attorney’s office. There, he prosecuted homicide and sex offense cases in the mid-1980s.

President George H.W. Bush appointed him to the bench in 1992. He spent more than six years in criminal court, two years in civil court, five years in family court and two years in domestic violence court.

The District’s seven-member Judicial Nomination Commission — composed of its chairman, U.S. District Judge Emmet G. Sullivan, four lawyers, a local minister and a representative of the AFL-CIO — decides on the court’s top job.

As chief, Satterfield oversees a $114 million operating budget, about 900 employees and judges, and more than 110,000 cases a year. Satterfield not only sets the tone for the courthouse, but also has the power to dictate which judges are named to high-profile committees and assignments.

Over the past four years, Satterfield has overseen the $5 million renovation of the atrium of the courthouse, an upgraded security system and the new high-tech courtrooms. Recently, Satterfield also oversaw the redesign of a mental health court for juveniles and the expansion of the community court program in which judges link residents to mental health, job and drug treatment programs. And he was the first chief judge to oversee the District’s same-sex marriages.

But there were also some difficulties. In the early weeks of the enhanced security system in the courthouse, visitors had to wait more than 40 minutes to enter the building, causing many hearings and trials to be delayed. Since then, Satterfield has ordered judges to stagger their start times to reduce the flood of visitors in the morning.

Last July, a murder suspect switched his wrist identification bracelet with another prisoner’s and was able to escape from the courthouse for several days before he was arrested. Satterfield quickly issued new directives on how prisoners would be processed in the court. Also last year, a court employee was attacked during a hearing.

Last week, Satterfield met with a handful of D.C. residents during a candidate’s forum. He was stern, strong and surprisingly candid. He criticized former schools chancellor Michelle A. Rhee for reducing the number of joint court-school programs to lower truancy and juvenile crime. Satterfield said he was working with Mayor Vincent C. Gray’s administration to restart the school program.

“I don’t have any authority to make the school chancellor do anything. But it’s necessary,” Satterfield said.

Having judges in the schools is part of Satterfield’s plan to have more interaction between the community and the court system outside the courthouse and before defendants are in trouble.

“My vision is that the court be an organization that is aggressively working to improve the services we provide to the community,” he told the crowd of about 70 attendees, most of whom were judges and staff.

Satterfield is focusing on the future. In the “Statement of Interest” he filed with the city for consideration of his possible reappointment, Satterfield said he wanted to expand resources for the domestic violence and probate divisions. He foresees the expansion of the rear of the main courthouse to create additional space, and he wants to create a system in which fewer prospective jurors are turned away. This could mean less frequent calls to jury duty for D.C. residents.

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 intern Chandra Levy.
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