Superior Court judges get their rankings.
It’s not uncommon for a defendant in D.C. Superior Court to show up in athletic wear. But when a defense attorney walked into a courtroom in May wearing track pants, the Council for Court Excellence took note.
Most of the time, only the person or persons actually on trial have to worry about being judged in court. All others, from the clerks and bailiffs on up to the judges, are secure in their unaccountability—free of the indignities that beset stand-up comics and contestants on American Idol.
Lately, however, the Council for Court Excellence, a local watchdog group, has decided that D.C. Superior Court could benefit from a little audience input. So this past spring, the group dispatched more than 90 volunteers—consisting mainly of retirees and students—to observe D.C. Superior Court Criminal Division judges at least six times over three months. On Aug. 1, the council published the findings of its observers, a follow-up to a similar study on the D.C. Superior Court’s Civil Division it produced last year.
The ultimate goal of the study, which is modeled after the more-than-25-year-old Citizen Court Monitoring project in New York state, is to make the courts more user-friendly for the public. But like college students’ annual ratings of professors, the volunteers’ findings—scored on a 10-point scale, with accompanying comments—end up painting a picture of the personalities involved.
Using techniques drawn from the social sciences—not to mention beauty pageants and ice-skating competitions—the monitors ranked the jurists in nine categories, including dignity, politeness, patience, time management, objectivity, and “control of the courtroom.”
Generally, the judges fared well, earning an average overall score of 9.2. The highest average marks were for objectivity; the lowest were for time management.
Success in one category often seemed to come at the expense of another. Judge Shellie Bowers, for instance, won strong marks for being patient—so much so, in fact, that one observer complained that the judge was “too patient” and gave him a mere 8 for time management. Judge Thomas Motley earned a whopping 9.9 for courtroom control, which may explain why he scored only 8.8 for politeness. As one observer put it, Motley could be “a little testy.”
So focused were the observers on delivery and demeanor, they sometimes come off like directors giving notes to novice actors. Judge John Bayly scored a measly 7.6 for patience because, as one volunteer noted, “[m]any times, his facial expression showed displeasure toward the defense team.” Deputy Presiding Judge of the Criminal Division Harold Cushenberry averaged only 8.7 for dignity; he spoke, one observer complained, “a little mechanically.” Judge Rafael Diaz, who scored 8.8 overall, lost some points because of “overt
Though they weren’t rated, prosecutors, defense attorneys, U.S. marshals, and jurors also endured the volunteers’ scrutiny. The observers were largely impressed with the court’s other players, but they made a point of noting exceptions, such as sleeping jurors, marshals watching American Pie 2 on a DVD player, and those excessively casual track pants. One observer noted that a prosecutor had a “nice sonorous voice but needs glasses, I think, to read, [he] had trouble.” Another observer complained that a defense attorney “droned on….I fell asleep twice.” One security officer got a thumbs-down for flirting with prosecutors whenever the judge left the room.
But the volunteers’ biggest gripe was that everyone in the courtrooms, from the judges down to the clerks, has a frustrating tendency to mumble.
The harshest verdicts were rendered on the court facilities. The Carl F. Moultrie Courthouse, the report says, is difficult to find from two nearby Metro stations and hard to navigate inside when you get there. The restrooms are “consistently messy,” with “liquid on the floor,” stall doors that don’t lock, and a chronic lack of soap. And the jurors’ lounge, one observer sniffed, resembles “a make-shift ER waiting room.” One observer even panned the lounge’s Christmas decorations, calling them “forlorn and slightly tawdry.”
If there’s a winner in the whole report, it would have to be Judge Noel Anketell Kramer, the presiding judge of the Criminal Division. Kramer scored an overall 9.8, tops among judges, with observers lauding her for being firm but approachable.
At the back of the pack was Magistrate Judge John King, who was given an overall score of 7.9. The observers apparently can tolerate a little testiness in their judges but not a perceived lack of effort: King seemed “a little tired,” one reported. Another volunteer noted that he “appeared bored and distanced.” Moreover, the judge was notably hard to hear—making it, one observer said, “impossible to evaluate his performance.” CP