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.
King was appointed in 2000 from a field of seven. Longtime court observers say the lines were drawn less divisively then, because there were so many people seeking the job and the support was diffused. With only two judges in the running this time, support has become more directed and personal.
For three weeks, lawyers, judges and city officials have been sending three- and four-page private e-mails and letters to committee members on behalf of their favored judge. The committee is expected to make its pick by the end of the month.
On Wednesday, a judge who is not in contention for the position e-mailed King and Robert I. Richter, the court's acting chief judge, alerting them that The Washington Post was asking judges about the campaign.
That e-mail, which was circulated in the courthouse, also said judges were forbidden to talk publicly about their support, and it reminded the judges of a D.C. statute forbidding sitting judges to publicly endorse a candidate.
Neither Satterfield nor Josey-Herring would discuss the campaign.
Both are highly respected among their peers.
Satterfield, a District native, spent the early part of his law career in the U.S. attorney's office. There, he prosecuted homicide and sex offense cases during the mid-1980s.
President George H.W. Bush appointed him to the bench in 1992. Satterfield presided over several high-profile cases, including the 2000 trial in the death of 23-month-old Brianna Blackmond. A jury convicted Brianna's godmother of slamming the toddler's head on the floor two weeks after the girl had been removed from foster care. Satterfield, 49, spent six years in criminal court, two years in civil court, five years in family court and two years in domestic violence court.
"He's been around almost all of the divisions of the courthouse," said Robert J. Spagnoletti, former D.C. attorney general and a Satterfield supporter. "He kind of gets what the issues are in the courthouse."
Three Washington-based lawyer organizations -- the Superior Court Trial Lawyers Association, the Hispanic Bar Association and the Bar Association of D.C. -- endorsed Satterfield based on the variety of his judicial experience.
Josey-Herring, who would become the court's first female chief judge, received an endorsement from the women's division of the National Bar Association. In a letter to the commission, the group said Josey-Herring had "demonstrated her commitment to the citizens of the District" and has had an "immeasurable impact" on the law and the city.
Josey-Herring, 47, a native of Portsmouth, Va., has never presided over a civil case. She has spent much of her judicial career identifying measures to prevent juveniles from ending up in the judicial system.
After President Bill Clinton appointed her to the bench in 1997, she served as Satterfield's deputy while he was the presiding family court judge from 2001 to 2005.
When she was named presiding judge of the family court three years ago, she initiated a juvenile sex offender program, and she reduced the number of pretrial detentions for youths by 30 percent from 2007 to 2008. Under her leadership, the court implemented child custody counseling services for children at the center of parental custody disputes.
In 2003, she helped start the Family Treatment Court, which allows children to stay with mothers who are being treated for drug addiction. Last year, she oversaw the opening of a juvenile offenders' facility in Anacostia, which offers services for youths awaiting trial or under court supervision.
Mayor Adrian M. Fenty (D) named her last year to a committee reviewing the status of then-administrative law judge Roy Pearson after his $54 million lawsuit against a dry cleaning business that lost Pearson's pants. Josey-Herring and the four other committee members voted not to reinstate Pearson.
Last week, nearly 100 spectators, mostly District judges and lawyers, crowded into a poorly ventilated auditorium at the University of the District of Columbia for a session with the candidates.
The audience refrained from applause or other signs of support during the 90-minute session. People with questions wrote them anonymously. Once reviewed, the questions were read by the forum's moderator. Several questions revolved around morale issues, how to broaden the jury pool and how to reduce the caseload judges face. But there were several questions about Josey-Herring's experience.
"I do not lack experience," she told the crowd. "I have more experience now than a lot of people who were seeking this position in the past."