Reserving Judgment On Top Court Job

By Keith L. Alexander
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, August 11, 2008

For months now, many of the District's top judges and lawyers in D.C. Superior Court have been carrying on like spies on a top-secret mission.

They send veiled messages from their personal e-mail accounts. They whisper into their cellphones, rather than risk being overheard on an office phone. They will discuss some issues only from home.

"The walls are so thin, you don't know who is listening," one senior judge said in hushed tones.

These judges and lawyers are murmuring about who will be the court's next chief judge, a position that is largely administrative but fraught with peril.

The incessant buzz about the competition is not derogatory.

"He's more experienced," many say of Lee F. Satterfield, an ex-prosecutor and associate judge in the criminal division who has been on the bench for 16 years.

"She managed to turn the family court into one of the top courts in the country," said a male judge who supports Anita Josey-Herring, a former public defender who has been a judge for 11 years and who oversees the court's family division.

Yet many supporters of Satterfield and Josey-Herring refuse to make their preference public, fearing that if they back the wrong horse, it could injure their clients and their careers. At a public question and answer session attended by lawyers and judges, questions were submitted on slips of paper, anonymously. One judge called a reporter from home, explaining that she did not want to discuss the race from her office.

"Judges have long memories in this town," said one prominent lawyer, anonymously, of course.

At stake is a job with power that operates largely behind the scenes. The victor will oversee 900 court employees, including 62 judges, and a $98.3 million operating budget. He or she will lead the court in negotiations with Congress and the D.C. Council and will hold regular meetings with D.C. police, the U.S. attorney's office and various legal associations.

The chief is expected to ensure that the other judges dispose of cases efficiently, rather than allowing them to drag on, and to appease court staff and personnel who are overworked.

In the end, only six people will have a say. The six-member Judicial Nomination Committee -- made up of its chairman, U.S. District Judge Emmet G. Sullivan, four lawyers and a union official -- will decide the successor to the court's current chief, Rufus G. King III. In May, King, 66, announced that he will step down after his second four-year term ends Sept. 30.

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