There are a lot of thankless jobs in this city.
Being a member of the D.C. Commission on Judicial Disabilities and Tenure must be high on any list of such jobs.
Judges, for the most part, view the body with disdain, the bar appears to view the panel as a necessary evil and no one seems to appreciate the important effect the commission has had on the quality of the city's judiciary.
I have had my differences with the panel, too. I felt it was unprepared for its first difficult reappointment decision -- that of former D.C. Superior Court Judge Charles W. Halleck; too quick to be secretive and protective about some judicial conduct that affects litigants on a regular basis; sometimes too light in its wrist-slaps of certain judges, and not quick enough at times to recognize a serious judicial conduct problem when it arose.
But its results, so far, are to be admired. No longer is the term "zoo" used on a regular basis to describe the atmosphere of the court. No one automatically refers to certain judges of the court as "crazy" any longer.
The judges of D.C. Superior Court sometimes use the words "chilling effect" to describe the panel's work. But they also seem to recognize that the people who have served on the panel are for the most part responsible individuals who take their work seriously.
The commission members know that many disgruntled litigants want to blame every loss on the supposed corrupt conduct of the judge. As the panel said in its last annual report, however, the commission found "that a majority of thecomplaints received were, either on their face, or after minimal investigation not appropriate subjects for its action."
There are appropriate subjects for panel intervention, however. Abusive conduct by judges is clearly one where the panel acts swiftly; an allegation of corruption -- a bribe or conflict of interest -- is also another problem that draws quick attention from the panel.
The criminal indictment of former D.C. Superior Court Judge Robert H. Campbell last week shows one way in which the existence of the panel served a useful purpose for the city.
Campbell's innocence or guilt is not the issue. That is for a jury to determine before a federal judge. (one irony of Campbell's indictment is that the case was assigned to U.S. District Judge Gerhard A. Gesell, who also serves as a member of the city's judicial tenure commission. Onecan only assume he will excuse himself because of his familiarity with the case.)
The important point is that there was some mechanism available to pressure Campbell into leaving the bench two years ago when the allegations of bribes and ticket-fixing first arose. The commission was deep into an investigation of the judge in late 1978 when he decided to retire on a permanent physical disability.
No one doubts that Campbell was physically ill at the time, and there should be no real question that he should have been given a medical retirement pension. However, one can doubt whether Campbell would have retired at the time had he not been under scrutiny by the panel.
The panel was not looking for a criminal act, or criminal corruption. That was rightly being left to the FBI and a federal grand jury. But the panel saw a clear pattern emerging in its investigation that gave it grave concern about Campbell's fitness as a judge.
At the time of his retirement, the panel said "the ultimate sanction which the commission has the power to impose is removal from the bench. This is accomplished through Judge Campbell's resignation and no useful purpose could be served in pursuing these allegations further."
Judicial reputations are obviously important, and no panel should lightly consider tarnishing them. As with any body with an immense amount of power, the panel must be observed carefully to make sure that it is acting with proper restraint and with necessary toughness, as the situation requires.
The tenure commission is performing well now. I wish the same could be said about its counterpart, the D.C. Judicial Nominating Commission that has the task of finding new judges to place on the D.C. Superior Court.
There are disturbing rumors about the strong political nature of that body. Its appointments over the years seem to bear out those rumors, and some old-time D.C. Superior Court Judges are reportedly on the verge of complaining publicly about the quality of the newest judges appointed to the city's bench.
The latter problem should be dealt with quickly. If nothing is done soon, the tenure commission is going to have more work than ever in a few years, cleaning up the mistakes made by the nominating group.
This city cannot afford to have the "zoo" image returning to a fine local bench.