The District of Columbia Bar voted yesterday to endorse, in principle, making public the results of its evaluations of local judges, but did not set a date for releasing survey findings.
Deciding one of the most hotly debated topics to come before the bar in recent years, the bar's board of governors voted 11 to 7 in favor of publishing the results of its surveys of local lawyers about the performance of D.C. Superior Court and Court of Appeals judges.
The proposal adopted yesterday, however, still permits the board to review the methods to be used in conducting the surveys and the form in which the results would be released.
As a result, said board member Marna S. Tucker, who proposed the motion adopted yesterday, it is unlikely that the evaluations scheduled for this year of 18 Superior Court and four Court of Appeals judges would be made public.
The bar, to which lawyers must belong to practice law in the District, has been conducting evaluations of judges off and on since 1980.
Until yesterday, it had voted to keep the initial results confidential and put off a final decision on the matter, largely to avoid a confrontation with the judges, a number of whom had expressed their adamant opposition to publicizing the survey results.
The surveys ask local lawyers to rate judges on a scale from "unsatisfactory" to "outstanding" on such factors as their legal ability, judicial temperament and impartiality.
The surveys are supposed to be conducted every three years of the judges' 15-year terms.
Those who support releasing the survey results said it would help problem judges improve and would further public knowledge about the judiciary.
"There is a right of the public to know what the public's business is," said Lawrence J. Latto, who heads the bar's Judicial Evaluation Committee.
Opponents of making the results public -- including bar President Frederick B. Abramson and President-elect Paul L. Friedman -- argued that the evaluations as currently conducted are flawed because too few lawyers return the evaluation forms to make the surveys statistically valid.
"It would not be responsible at this stage to publish the results," Friedman said.
However, Friedman said, even if the methodology was perfected he might oppose publication to avoid antagonizing the D.C. Court of Appeals, which controls the bar.
"There are other things more important," Friedman said. "This to me personally is not worth the fight."
Abramson urged the board not to act hastily.
"If you vote for publication now, you can't undo it," Abramson said. "If you don't vote for it, I think you can undo that at any time."