By Paul Duggan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, May 6, 2008
A group that advocates making the nation's justice system more user-friendly for non-lawyers said in a report yesterday that the District's procedures for holding judges accountable to the public are among the worst in the country.
The study, by the nonprofit group Help Abolish Legal Tyranny (HALT), did not examine specific cases of wrongdoing by judges. Researchers graded the court systems in all states and the District on their rules for judicial conduct and ethics and their procedures for sanctioning violators.
"The District of Columbia's system of judicial oversight is one of the most secretive in the country," HALT's senior counsel, Suzanne M. Blonder, said in a statement. "In an era that embraces principles of sunshine and transparency, it's shameful that the system of monitoring some of our most powerful government officials is designed to shut out the public."
On the group's Judicial Accountability 2008 Report Card, no jurisdiction got an A. Washington state received a B, and Connecticut and Pennsylvania were graded B-minus. Thirty-three states were graded C-plus to C-minus. The District (grade: D) and a dozen states were ranked in the D-plus to D-minus range. Maine and Mississippi got an F. Maryland was given a C and Virginia, a D.
Based on the numerical scores used to calculate the grades for the 51 jurisdictions, the District was in a three-way tie with Delaware and Louisiana, ahead of only Maine and Mississippi. Maryland ranked 17th, and Virginia was 45th, a few rungs higher than the District.
Henry F. Schulke, special counsel to the D.C. Commission on Judicial Disabilities and Tenure, said that there were several inaccuracies in the report and that the commission, which is independent of the court system, is only abiding by federal law.
"The commission's jurisdiction, its confidentiality provisions, its financial disclosure provisions are all governed by a statute enacted by Congress," he said. "And so to the extent there are any perceived deficiencies in the process, it's not something under the control of the commission itself."
The researchers rated each jurisdiction on the degree of public access to complaints against judges; the severity of sanctions; the availability of online information about disciplinary proceedings; the percentage of non-lawyers involved in the sanctioning process; the level of financial disclosure required of judges; whether people are free to speak publicly about complaints they file; and the strictness of limits on reimbursements, compensation and honoraria for privately sponsored trips by judges.
The District got F's on public access to complaints and the severity of sanctions.
"The District is one of only three jurisdictions in the nation to delay disclosure of an ethics complaint against a judge unless and until the [D.C.] Court of Appeals orders public discipline," HALT said, adding that "the D.C. Commission on Judicial Disabilities and Tenure typically only sanctions dishonorable judges with closed-door reprimands and secret censures about which the public is never notified."
The group gave the District an F for financial disclosure and D's for online information, compensation for private trips and the involvement of non-lawyers in imposing sanctions on judges. Because complainants are not under gag orders during the disciplinary process, as they are in some jurisdictions, HALT gave the District an A in the "consumer friendliness" category.