SOME SUPERIOR COURT judges are unhappy about a plan to transfer control of the city's criminal justice system from the federal government to the District government. They feel uneasy about giving the mayor, instead of the president, final control over selecting judges (as well as prosecutors), and they do not want to lose the U.S. Marshal Service, which does a first-rate job of policing the courthouse. Other people worry about eliminating local responsibilities of the U.S. Attorney's Office, which now prosecutes all major criminal offenses in the District -- and which attracts high-caliber young lawyers. Would a local district attorney do as well?
Beneath these arguments is a basic and largely unspoken problem: fear of incompetence in the administration of local justice. Some of the judges, not unlike many other District residents, glance nervously around the city and suggest that if the fate of their work place is left to the District government, it will tend to become a confused, inefficient mess. This feeling was apparent in a memo judges sent the mayor in June 1979. It warned that the courts could be left in disarray if care is not taken in how the courts are put under local authority. Possibly to soften such opposition, the latest city proposal to give court control to local officials includes a pay raise for the judges.
The city government's ploy is demeaning. Moreover, it begs the question of whether the judges' apprehension over the future quality of the court system is valid. Certainly there is no reason to indulge judges who are simply comfortable with the old arrangement and who have not adjusted in their minds to the rights and fair principle that local courts should be run, even in the nation's capital, by the local government. Judges have a responsibility, as well as an interest, in manifesting the energy and vigilance that will be necessary to ensure that a change to local control does not diminish the quality of justice in the city. Their anxieties have something of the quality of a self-fulfilling prophecy. It is well within the power and capacity of the judges to help stave off the negative consequences that some of them foresee.
The city government, meanwhile, has its own responsibility. It must tackle the matter of court reform with high seriousness, and it must make sure that no changes in administering local justice are made without due consultation with the local judges. As for the particular question of whether the mayor should appoint prosecutors as well as judges, it is not a problem on its face, but perhaps it is worth considering whether the district attorney should be an elected official independent of the mayor. The minimal standard for a new system is that it meet the generally high standards of the old.