How good is the District's Superior Court, the city's local court system?

Some recent cases suggest that the courts are not very good. Take that of William David Ferguson, for six months one of the city's "10 most wanted criminals." When he was finally arrested last August, a Superior Court judge immediately released him. The judge later said the prosecutor did not tell him that Ferguson was on the most-wanted list; the prosecutor said he did not know. But the police say they told the prosecutor's office. Whatever the truth, a top-10 criminal was in and out of the court in short order, the public left unprotected by its courts. a

A similar mistake by the court may have cost a policeman his life. Eight months before Bruce Wazon Griffith shot policeman Arthur Snyder in the head, Griffith appeared in Superior Court on a heroin possessin charge. The judge released him on personal bond. After Griffith had shot Snyder, a court official admitted that Griffith's release eight months earlier had been a "bureaucratic mistake. He was on parole for a previous robbery conviction and a hearing should have been held on revoking his parole."

These cases come against a background of nagging problems for the Superior Court: in August former Superior Court judge Robert Campbell was indicted by a federal grand jury for accepting, over a period of 20 years, more than $20,000 in cash and gifts for dismissing traffic tickets. There is a political push -- opposed by many judges -- to transfer the power of appointing judges of the court from the president to the mayor of the District government. And arguments over the quality, selection and pay of attorneys used by the court to represent poor people are raising fears that the court's paid attorney system does not work.

"At this point," one jduge said as another sat in the room nodding his head in agreement, "the Superior Court is a sick but sacred cow. The lawyers (and the judges) just do their business and say everything is fine. No one is looking at what is taking place in the whole court."

"Besides," the other judge added later, "the people who are getting a bad deal [in the court] are the poor people, the uneducated, the people who have to deal with crime daily. They are not the ones that ask questions [about the court] or get them answered." Although the courts may have some troubles, the Superior Court here enjoys a reputation as one of the best in the land."No other city in the country has judges and lawyers who are as competent, as a group, as the District," says Bruce Beaudin, head of the city's Pretrial Services Division. "I'd rather be an indigent defendant here than anywhere else."

"Because this is the nation's capital," says Charles Ruff, the U.S. attorney for the District, the city's chief prosecutor, "there is generally a better quality of people running the courts than you might find elsewhere."

Ruff and Beaudin, like most judges and lawyers, feel that the District's Superior Court system is a good one. But as one recent survey found, lawyers and judges usually have a better opinion of courts than anyone else does.

How good are the city's superior courts by some objective measure? Three standards are often used in judging courts: How does a city choose it judges? What is the quality of their output? How long does it take for a case to get through the courts?

In selecting its judges, the District's Superior Court ranks high, with a judicial tenure group preventing politicians from choosing unqualified political hacks. District judges -- despite the bribery charges against Judge Campbell -- are considered to be among the best in any local court system. As for the second criterion, the quality of justice dispensed by the judges and their respect for defendants -- be they poor, uneducated or drug-addicted -- are very high. District judges, I think, are also generally compassionate.

But in the time it takes a case to get through Superior Court, things are not so good. The District ranked in the middle of a study of court systems in seven cities. A 1977 study found that in the District Superior Court it takes a case 204 days to go from arrest to the final finding of guilt or innocence. It takes only 102 days in New Orleans, the city with the quickest case flow. While there is room for improvement in the District's speed in handling cases -- the current backlog of felony cases in the city is over a year long -- the Superior Court does not take an unacceptably long time with its cases in comparison with other big cities.

Where the Superior Court definitely does not compare favorably with other courts, according to judges, lawyers and policemen, is in the way the court is managed, its administration.

"The Superior Court's main problem is in the quality of the court staff," said Samuel F. Harahan, staff director of a series of District of Columbia Bar committee reports on the courts. "There is a serious problem with files. There is also a bad attitude problem that the public encounters when they go to the court and have to deal with court staff."

The reports of the District Bar committee, chaired by Charles Horsky, are also critical of the quality of the city corporation counsel's legal staff and juvenile prosecutors. The committee's study of the court was under taken by the District Bar to see how well the courts have fared since well-publicized problems in the mid-'60s led to major court reforms, instituted in 1971. According to the Horsky Commission, the reforms have been mostly successful and the courts are better than they once were, though serious problems remain.

One of those serious problems is that although judges here are thought to be among the best, a study found that a smart lawyer would shop around for a judge in the District. Simply put, some judges seem to like giving long sentences and sending people to jail, and others do not. The Institute for Law and Social Research reported that some judges are twice as likely as others to send a defendant to jail and they "four out of every 10 sentencing decisions [by judges] could not be explained.

The research group also found that over half of all arrests for felonies (serious assaults, large robberies, rapes, etc.) in the District never reach the court because they are dropped by prosecutors.

"Either the cops are arresting too many people," said William Hamilton, president of the group, "or they are not doing a good job of arresting criminals and getting evidence. . . . Half of the people they arrest are getting right back on the street.

"This is responsible for some of the cynical attitude toward the court," Hamilton said. "The cops see the criminal being released and complain about revolving -door justice. The Witness and the victims see the defendant back on the street, too."

In the District, that concern about "revolving-door justice" translates into worry about reluctance of District prosecutors to use the preventive detention statute, which removes all chances of bail for a dangerous criminal and keeps him in jail until trial. Prosecutors here do not use that statute as often as they might because when they ask for preventive detention they must reveal their witnesses and evidence in the case and bring the case to trial in 60 days -- relatively short period of time. When the prosecutors do not ask for preventive detention, the judges cannot consider how dangerous a criminal is in setting bond; the judge can consider only if the defendant is likely to return for future court dates, and 93 percent of all defendants do return to court as scheduled.

"If the people of Washington are concerned about the courts' letting dangerous criminals out," says Beaudin, "then the laws must be changed here to let the judges consider danger as a factor in granting bond. But right now the judges cannot do that. It would be illegal."

There is also another factor: in the Griffith case and others, the jduge did not have the proper information about the defendant. That problem is an administrative one, and, according to judges and lawyers who are in the court daily, the Superior Court is an administrative mess. Important files are missing, and cases are delayed without any consistent reason.

As Mayor Barry and others push to have control of the court transferred from the federal government to the District government, the problem of missing files and weak court management will loom large. Much of the resistance to having the District take over the court system is based on the District government's reputation as an administrative mess itself.

But the courts are already in trouble because of bad management and a lack of supervision by the federal government. Having the District govenment in charge of the courts could mean closer oversight of the courts. And it could definitely increase the pressure on the courts to get its papers, decision and criminal records in order.