Imagine never having to look for parking. You drive to work every day, park for free in a covered garage, and are whisked by private elevator to a spacious office, complete with kitchenette and private loo. Minions fetch fresh towels and ferry you to important meetings. You make six very attractive figures a year, with six weeks of paid vacation, unlimited sick leave, and you go on numerous junkets to exotic locales. Add to the fantasy a generous pension plan that allows you to retire from this plum job while you’re still young enough to tie flies, raise children, or start an entirely new career. Now imagine that you are an employee of the District government.
As a Superior or Appellate Court judge in the District of Columbia, membership has its privileges. Your salary and budget may come from District funds, but the mayor can’t tell you what to doas a matter of fact, you make more money than he does. As a jurist in District courts, you sit atop a very privileged food chain, working in a court system that is well-financed and unencumbered by even routine oversight.
The D.C. courts are an oasis of fiscal stability in a city where police officers struggle to find yellow crime-scene tape and public-health clinics lack basic vaccinations. While other city employees struggle to make due amidst grinding financial chaos, the courts have new computers, money in the bank, and the kind of stability that allows for planning and innovation. Even if you don’t wear a robe, life is sweet in the D.C. courts; there have been no city-imposed furloughs or cuts in pay for anyone lucky enough to work at the courthouse.
Given trends in crime and incarceration, you might think the court is just growing to meet needs, but D.C.’s judicial branch is essentially doing the same amount of work it did five years agoonly they’re doing it with far more money and eight more judges. According to the mayor’s 1996 budget, the courts’ funding has increased 45 percent since 1989. Spending by other public-safety agencies increased by a scant 15 percent during the same period.
Created in 1971, D.C. Superior Court is an odd hybrid of state and municipal justice, handling everything from murder to malpractice cases, while the D.C. Court of Appeals, created at the same time, is the District’s court of last resort. Both courts are funded by the city, but the judges are nominated by the president and confirmed by the U.S. Senate. The courts submit their budget directly to Congress, but the money comes right out of the District’s treasury, an arrangement that has given the courts a reputation for financial independence and institutional arrogance.
Life is good down at the courthouse; caseloads have been steadily shrinking, while budgets continue to grow. The intensifying civic crisis has not created so much as a ripple in the judge’s chambers; in spite of its relative wealth and a fiscal crisis that has left the city almost insolvent, the pampered judiciary has steadfastly refused to substantially pare its budgetand the District’s elected officials are nearly powerless to do anything about it.
Nowhere is the court’s largess more epically depicted than in the job descriptions of Superior and Appellate Court judges, who receive 15-year appointments. D.C. judges are the highest-paid municipal judges in the country, pulling down the same salary as federal judges, who are lifetime appointees. In addition to unlimited sick leave and 30 days paid vacation, Appellate judges make $141,700 a year, while Superior Court judges are paid $133,600. According to a 1994 study by the National Center for State Courts, the national average salary for trial court judges is $84,542.
By law, D.C. judges’ salaries are tied to those of federal judges, even though the money comes out of the D.C. treasury. As a result, when federal judges get a raise, so do D.C. judgesthe mayor and the council have nothing to say about it. Former D.C. Councilmember James Nathanson, who once proposed that the judges waive pay raises in times of austerity as the council had done, recalls, “They got very annoyed at that.”
But it’s really the little things that make the judges’ jobs special. For instance, despite their lucrative salaries, the judges have a private dining room in the courthouse where they get all-you-can-eat meals that never cost more than $5.55. And when the judges have made one too many trips through the cafeteria line, they can work off the extra calories in one of two judicial gyms in the main courthouse, with separate facilities for male and female judges.
The guys in the mail room serve as unofficial foot servants to the judiciary. Every Wednesday, the mail room guys load up their carts with fresh, white, cotton towels for the judges’ individual latrines. The towel service actually provides jobs to some of the people judges put in jail: The linen is a product of D.C. prisons.
The men and women behind the bench never have to worry about parking tickets, the bane of everybody else who must visit the court, especially working police officers who are called to testify. Parking around the courthouse is scarce, and the 400-odd cops required for court appearances every day complain incessantly about their cars getting booted while they’re on the witness stand putting away bad guys. But the judges use a special underground garage. The city can’t afford to fill potholes these days, but on the weekend of Oct. 28 the court built speed bumps in the parking garage, which one court employee said were installed to slow down speeding judges.
Judges don’t have to do much speedingat least during work hoursbecause the court has a chauffeur service to ferry them to appointments around the city in any one of the courts’ 15 vehicles. The service is coordinated by a man named Clarence Myers. He is officially the mail-room supervisor, but he resides in the swanky digs of the administrative office, one floor up from the mail room. Myers does most of the driving, but other mail-room clerks can help out in a pinch.
Once the judges drive to work, private elevators ensure that they never have to mill around with the riffraff who pay their salaries. The main courthouse actually has three private elevators just for judges. There was a time when the elevator nearest the Court of Appeals chief judge’s chambers only went to the fifth floor, so the chief judge either had to walk up a flight of stairs, or, God forbid, walk around to another elevator to get up to the top floor. But in the 1991 capital budget, the court convinced the D.C. Council to approve $865,000 for some minor elevator improvements, including a complete overhaul of the elevator that now transports the chief judge from the parking garage right up to the sixth floor, near her chambers.
And just because a judge retires, it doesn’t mean he or she leaves the lap of luxury; D.C.’s judges have a pension plan unlike any other local judges in the country. Jurists in the District are allowed to retire at any age after only 10 years of service and are still assured of collecting substantial benefits. No matter what age they retire, they can begin to collect their pension at age 55. When 53-year-old Superior Court Judge Curtis von Kann hit the 10-year mark, he retired and headed uptown to become a partner for the tony private law firm of Ross, Dixon & Masback, where partners make hundreds of thousands of dollars a year. Judge von Kann’s 10 years of service don’t qualify him for full pension, but once he turns 55, he can collect about 28 percent of his salary$37,000 a year plus cost-of-living increases.
The judges’ pension plan is an expensive perk with an incredibly long tail. If the youthful von Kann lives as long as the average American, the city is stuck with his pension bill for the next 20 years, to the tune of nearly $1 million. His contribution to the fund? Three percent of his salary, a total of about $30,000 over his 10 years on the bench. According to the 1996 budget, the city pays out more than $5 million a year to retired judges, including some who now have lifetime appointments to the federal bench.
Then again, judges in D.C. rarely actually retire. They take “senior status,” a special category of judicial service that allows judges to collect their pensions and keep working. Out of the 39 judges currently “retired,” 26 still have senior status, according to the 1996 budget. Senior judges collect about $513 a day when they return to the bench to hear cases, which they can use to augment partial pensions. For instance, if Judge von Kann decides to come back to sit on the bench once in a while, he’ll get $513 a day for each day of service on top of his $37,000 annual pension payment, until the combination of the two equals a full-time judge’s salary. The D.C. courts are considered to be at full strength with 68 judges, but if you count the senior judges, they actually have 94 judges.
Senior Superior Court Judge Tim Murphy, who has been a D.C. judge for three decades, believes the District is getting what it pays for. Murphy argues that D.C.’s courts are among the best in the country and he believes the courts should not sacrifice their legacy of excellence just because the rest of the District is a basket case. Despite decades as an employee of the District, Murphy is largely unfazed by the city’s financial problems and goes to great lengths to distinguish the work of the court from that of its municipal brethren.
“If you have to justify everything to a guy with green eye shades, you may get the letter of the law but not the spirit,” says Murphy. “The court is just like a hospital. Just because you have a few empty beds you don’t shut them down, because there might be a crisis tomorrow. You can’t measure justice on a purely dollar basis.”
Judges in jurisdictions all over the country live a life above the fray, but the distance between D.C.’s judiciary and the dismal reality of public life here is beyond the pale. One staffer says the massive perks effectively insulate the judges from the real impact of the city’s fiscal woes. “The judges are out of the loop now more than ever.”
In September, shortly before a judicial delegation appeared on Capitol Hill to present its 1996 budget request, the courts managed to land a story in the Washington Post about the courthouse’s perpetually broken escalator. Court officials pointed to the dismantled equipment as an indication that they too are sharing the city’s fiscal pain. In truth, the judicial branch has not suffered a fraction of the torment inflicted on other city-funded agencies.
In the last few months of the fiscal year, when critical city vendors were going belly up for lack of payment, the court spent nearly a quarter of a million dollars on 100 new personal computersmany souped up with CD-ROM drives and sound cardsaccording to court staffers. They spruced up the courthouse a little, ordering $170,000 worth of new modular office furniture and refurbishing the old benches in landlord-tenant court.
Rank-and-file court employees were exempted from furloughs and the 4-percent pay cut forced on nearly all other city workers last year. And last spring, while every other city agency was being asked to pare spending by 5 percent halfway through the year, the court cut almost nothingand then asked for $10 million more for 1996.
Neighboring jurisdictions can’t help casting an envious eye toward the District courts’ Midas touch. D.C. courts have rapidly outpaced their counterparts in Maryland and Virginia. Montgomery County Circuit Court Administrator Pamela Quirk says that over the past five years, funding for her court has grown less than 2 percent a year, and that she has always been amazed by the D.C. courts’ good fortune. “They’ve done very well. They’re always getting new stuff,” says Quirk. “I don’t know how they’ve done it. We’re really buying more with less. We won’t even pay for a judge’s box of Kleenex.”
The courts’ capital budget is nothing to sneeze at; the last approved capital budget, for the years 1995-2001, was $38 million. While dwindling state revenues have forced courts elsewhere to cut back on construction, the D.C. courts continue to expand, adding wings, conference rooms, and new courtrooms where and when they see fit. The renovations have been so willy-nilly that the Department of Public Works estimates that it will cost $12 million to overhaul the courthouse’s ailing heating and air-conditioning system just to catch up with all of the construction.
Court officials won’t say if they conducted a space-usage study, but courthouse regulars are acutely aware that most of the main courthouse empties out by 4 p.m. Judges rarely take the bench before 10 a.m., and they shut down for the day by 4:45 because of a court ban on overtime. In the late 1980s, municipal courts in Chicago and Los Angeles saved millions in building costs by changing their hours and reassigning staff. In 1989, Chicago introduced a night court to handle drug cases, which not only avoided construction costs, but also reduced the pending criminal-case backlog by 16 percent in the first four months of the program without adding a single new judge.
Nevertheless, last year, at the same time District officials were begging the federal government for assistance in repairing the city’s dangerously decrepit bridges, court officials huddled over architects’ renderings of the new Supreme Court of the District of Columbia, to be housed in the stately old municipal building at 451 Indiana Ave. NW after a proposed $16 million in renovations. Of course, the District does not presently have a supreme court, but the local judiciary seem to believe that if
they build it, it will come.
Judith Rogers, former chief judge of the court of appeals,
was the driving force behind the effort to bring a supreme court
to the District, perhaps because she would have naturally ascended
to the chief justice spot at the new court. Rogers and her sup-
porters managed to persuade Delegate Eleanor Holmes Norton to introduce legislation to found the new court in 1993. The bill floated around Congress for a couple of years, but today, “It’s absolutely dead in the water,” says Samuel Harahan, executive director of
the Council for Court Excellence, a good-government watchdog group.
The plan’s legislative death didn’t stop the courts from securing $1.3 million in city financing for the project, nor did they hesitate to spend thousands of dollars planning the design. In the courts’ 1996 budget, the judiciary actually asks the city to cut the funds for the project from the 1996 capital budget so the courts can reassess it. But on April 25, the court approved $1.2 million in architect and engineering fees for the firm of Bryant & Bryantmore than a month after the hold request had been sent to the D.C. Council. That hardly sounds like a decision made for a project about to be shelved.
Superior Court Chief Judge Eugene Hamilton and D.C. Court of Appeals Chief Judge Annice Wagner referred calls for this story to court executive officer Ulysses Hammond, who did not respond to a faxed list of questions for this story.
A sense of prerogative and a lack of fiscal urgency are apparent in every corner of the courthouse. In the early 1980s, most of the city’s courtrooms were equipped with state-of-the-art recording systems to document legal proceedings. The system was so good that the Montgomery County Circuit Court decided to use the same setup when it built a new courthouse 14 years ago. But Montgomery officials clearly understood what the system was designed foreliminating the need for court reporters.
Montgomery County Court Administrator Pamela Quirk says the court abolished its court-reporting division soon after the electronic recording system was installed, and the system paid for itself in the first year. She estimates that by using the system, the court has saved $8 million dollars over the past 10 years. When the recording system was installed, the court had only eight judgesit now has 16. Imagine the savings available to both D.C. courts, with their 68 full-time judges and 50 court reporters on the payroll at nearly $2 million a year.
But even though the courts are currently spending more than $600,000 from their capital budget to upgrade the existing recording system, they have no immediate plans to shelve the court reporters. Superior Court Judge Nan Shuker, presiding judge of the civil division, chairs a court task force that is examining the issue of court records. She says the technology is not infallible, so she’s happy to have the costly redundancy. “The question is weighing the risk of the accuracy of the record and the money. If I had a choice, and money was not an issue, I would never get rid of court reporters,” Shuker says.
The Guardianship and Protective Proceedings fund is another boondoggle the Superior Court has quietly kept to itself. The D.C. Council created the program in 1989 to provide legal representation for the disabled and low-income elderly who require a court-appointed guardian to make their financial and health care decisions. When the program was under consideration, the judiciary ominously predicted that it would require massive payments to attorneys, examiners, and doctors for the proceedings.
The American Association of Retired Persons (AARP) disputed the court’s projections; nonetheless, in 1989, the council and Congress agreed to give the court about $3.5 million in additional funding and 15 new authorized staff positions for the program. A year-and-a-half later, former Superior Court Chief Judge Fred Ugast sheepishly told Congress that the court was offering a one-time return to the city of $1.5 million in spending authority because the guardianship proceedings had gotten off to a slow start. But he promised that the court would soon be handling “between 1,700 and 2,000 potential cases.”
Today, the court sees about 100 new guardianship proceedings annually, the same as in 1990, according to the court’s 1994 annual report. And the 1994 city budget shows that the court only spends about $280,000 a year in fees from the $3-million legal fund, and the program is now staffed by four people, not 15. But according to records of budget hearings, judicial testimony, and old budget documents, the court has never again offered to forgo any of the $17.5 million it has received to run the program over the past five years. Only a handful of court officials know where the extra money might have gone, because it’s nearly impossible to track in public budget documents. But court officials aren’t talking.
Michael Schuster, assistant general counsel for AARP, who worked on the guardianship legislation, says, “I’m not surprised they had money left over, because their initial cost estimates were grossly inflated.” He adds that legislative changes enacted since the law went into effect should reduce the caseload even further, but the court has refused to provide him with any information about the program’s real costs. Court executive officer Hammond did not respond to City Paper’s requests for information about the program, nor would he allow other knowledgeable court officials to discuss it on the record.
The court’s peerless ability to access funding hasn’t gone unnoticed by the rest of the city government. The judiciary’s outright refusal to lend a hand in the city’s belt-tightening has generated a substantial amount of anger and jealousy among other city employees.
“People are somewhat annoyed with the court,” says former D.C. Councilmember James Nathanson, who is now a board member at the Council for Court Excellence. “It builds up some negative psychology in the rest of the city and even with the citizens.”
The judiciary seems largely oblivious to the mounting tension building between the court and the rest of the city. In fact, early in 1995, the judges seemed rather pleased with themselves when they spurned the mayor after he had had the temerity to suggest that if city government had to cut 5 percent to meet Congressionally imposed spending reductions, the judicial branch should be no exception. The judges effectively overruled the city’s request.
In the courts’ most recent annual report, Court of Appeals Chief Judge Annice Wagner indicated that the courts declined the mayor’s request because the court had been woefully underfunded over the previous several years. She expressed concern about “the severe and long term, adverse impact that an arbitrary reduction of that magnitude would have on the administration of justice, particularly given the courts’ increased public safety obligations, other case load pressures, and prior underfunding.”
At a hearing before the council’s judiciary committee last March, Superior Court Chief Judge Eugene Hamilton told legislators that, while he was “keenly mindful” of the city’s financial crisis, “I must note that the past three budget requests for the Superior Court have essentially been ‘no growth’ requests due to the District’s perilous fiscal situation.”
Any high school math student could deduce that 5- or 10-percent, multimillion dollar annual budget increases don’t constitute “no growth” requests. The fiscal double talk demonstrates that judges aren’t above using the same smoke-and-mirror tricks the rest of the District government uses during budget season. It’s a timeworn strategy, and all government officials do it, even the ones who wear robes. The only difference is that, in the main, the council, the mayor, and Congress actually take the judges’ assertions at face value. They’re judges, after all. If you can’t trust them, who can you trust?
At-Large Councilmember William Lightfoot, who chairs the council’s Judiciary Committee, has taken the courts to task on occasion. But in general, he buys the courts’ logic and their current budget, saying, “Their budget is an outgrowth of an increase in their workload.”
The numbers tell a different story. The Appellate Court has enjoyed a burgeoning budget and a shrinking caseload in the recent past. Between 1989 and 1995, the court’s budget jumped nearly 40 percent, from $4.4 million to $6.1 million. It has also added 15 new staff positions. Yet new case filings (and backlogs) have remained largely unchanged.
In fact, criminal appeals have dropped dramatically since the mid-1980s, sinking from 939 in 1986 to 631 in 1994. The diminishing workload and skyrocketing budget might explain how the Court of Appeals could afford to purchase 95 new personal computers in 1994 for a staff that, by law, could be no larger than 88 people. (Wagner brags about the new hardware in the same annual report in which she laments the court’s inadequate funding.)
A similar phenomenon is occurring in Superior Court, where the budget has grown from $55 million in 1989 to $78 million in 1995. The authorized staffing level grew by 104 people during the same period. Yet new case filings in Superior Court have steadily declined. According to the court’s own numbers, new case filings fell 5 percent across the board between 1989 and 1994. In the civil division, new filings are down 10 percent, a reasonable expectation in a city with a shrinking population.
And in spite of all the sound and fury about crime in the District, since 1989, serious felony cases are down 14 percent. There were 10 percent fewer criminal jury trials in 1994 than in 1989, as well. And the figures for 1995 should be even lower, considering that the crime rate is falling, fewer cops are on the street to make arrests, and a new law has all but eliminated jury trials for misdemeanor offenses.
The declining criminal caseload is no secret in the rest of the criminal justice system. John Carver III, director of the Pretrial Services Agency, says the police department no longer does the massive sweeps of open-air drug markets that clogged the court with hundreds of drug cases in the late 1980s. He says that since the last round of budget cuts his agency endured, the decline in criminal cases “is the only thing that’s keeping us afloat.”
The family division is the only part of Superior Court that has seen significant growth in new cases, up 18 percent since 1989. The court regularly trots out the figure at budget hearings to justify its growing financial needs, but the family division accounts for just 11 percent of the court’s entire workload. Even with the increase in the caseload of the family division, the court still had a 5-percent across-the-board decrease in new cases.
The courts may have managed to dodge the ax, but a variety of other agencies in the criminal justice system that don’t have the courts’ clout have been hammered relentlessly. Consider the corrections department, a chronically underfunded agency that has similar public safety demands. The corrections department’s budget in 1994 was $244.5 million, and its 1996 proposed budget, approved by the council last fall, is $233.5 milliona loss of $11 million dollars and 200 authorized staff positions.
“There’s not a sufficient sharing of the pain between the three branches of government,” says former City Administrator Robert Mallett, who recalls once hearing a judge complain that the court was too poor to print out slip opinions one year, yet insist at the same time that the court was so well-managed that it had returned money to the treasury. “It just doesn’t add up,” says Mallett.
The courts’ status as moneyed fiefdoms amidst municipal ruin is difficult to understand, but the courts are untouchable by design. In one of the first steps towards home rule, the D.C. courts were reorganized in 1971 to shift authority for local criminal and civil matters from the federal courts to D.C.’s Court of General Sessions. Under the guidance of first Superior Court Chief Judge Harold Greenewho later became famous as the federal judge who broke up AT&Tthe D.C. municipal court expanded its jurisdiction to become what is today D.C. Superior Court. Superior Court handles everything from tax cases, juvenile justice, and small claims to landlord-tenant disputes. The Court of Appeals was established at the same time to review Superior Court decisions and to oversee the D.C. Bar’s lawyer-discipline system.
Retired Superior Court Judge von Kann says the system was set up to be a model state court for the rest of the country, and that the juicy salary, pension, and other benefits for judges were designed to attract good candidates in a city full of lawyers who might have little financial incentive to take the bench. “On the whole, the D.C. court system has been able to attract good people in part because of that system.”
Life behind the D.C. bench is a heck of a deal. District judges enjoy all of the upsides of municipal employmentjob security, the numerous holidaysand they’re spared most of the downsides. The judiciary doesn’t have to grovel for its budget and is nearly free of practical oversight because the executive and legislative branches are prohibited by the home rule charter from interfering with the courts’ management.
“It’s the most godawful system you ever heard of,” says Lawrence Mirel, a former D.C. Council general counsel. “They can spend huge chunks of District money, but they’re not accountable to anyone.”
The court’s lineage as an entitled offspring of home rule has meant that the city’s municipal court never lost the trappings of a federal institution, even though its budget comes from the D.C. treasury.
“A lot of the judges don’t even believe they are D.C. employees,” says Robert Mallett, former city administrator under Mayor Sharon Pratt Kelly. “It is very detached.”
The court’s imperiousness reached new heights last year when executive officer Hammond sent a letter to D.C. budget director Rodney Palmer in January refusing to prepare a spending plan for the mayor to help the city manage its money into the 1997 fiscal year.
“The District of Columbia Courts are a separate and co-equal branch of the District government,” wrote Hammond, telling Palmer that executive orders and regulations applicable to other governmental agencies just don’t apply to the judiciary. Since then, the court has refused every single request from the mayor’s budget office to participate in the fiscal planning process, even though other public safety agencies are now being required to rejustify their very existence, dollar for dollar.
Johnny Allem, director of Mayor Barry’s office of communications, says the mayor’s office has been cornered into pleading no contest. “They are given by the Congress their own budget authority. They just get the bills and we pay them,” says Allem. “It’s been like that for a long time. We’re not interested in picking fights with them.”
City legislators take an occasional stab at the courts, but former general counsel Mirel says the judges have always thought that coming before the council to defend their budget was beneath them, given that the council had so little power to change it. As a result, Mirel says, “They are not subject to the same kind of oversight as everybody else.”
Senior Judge Tim Murphy pleads guilty to controlling information. “We don’t maintain our independence if we have to give information to people who have no power. Why give people a rock to throw at us when they don’t have the right to the rock?”
Councilmember Lightfoot says there are solid constitutional and practical reasons for the courts’ independence. “In fairness, there’s as much oversight of the courts as there is of the mayor or the council. We leave them alone. If you want to make the courts an agency, that is contrary to American democracy, with the executive, legislative, and judicial branches of government, none of which rules over the other.”
Municipal and state courts in other jurisdictions are also independent branches of government, but they’re still required to report to the state legislative bodies that fund them. In the District, though, without a state to provide the next tier of oversight, the D.C. courts must report to Congress, which is too busy with other matters to provide any real management.
No one from the offices of key congressional representatives James Walsh (R-N.Y.), Tom Davis (R-Va.), or Delegate Eleanor Holmes Norton would return repeated calls for this story. One Senate staffer who would talk about the courts, although not for attribution, says, “The members have taken the opinion that these decisions should be left to the local officials. The city sets the priorities and we mostly approve them.”
The courts seem to have engineered a clear, independent path to Congress, using their reputation as a bastion of orderliness amidst the chaos of D.C. government. And unlike the city, D.C. courts have a built-in constituency comprised of all the District’s many lawyers. “The courts have a very powerful lobby,” says Mallett. “We have 40,000 lawyers in this city and they are articulate.”
This fall, the courts flexed their muscle, enlisting the bar to lobby Congress on their behalf to preserve their funding and extraordinary independence. As a result, the Republican-controlled, penny-pinching, District-bashing Congress exempted the courts from oversight by the new financial control board and voted to increase the courts’ budget by another $4 million. (As this story went to press, Congress had still not approved the 1996 D.C. budget, and the courts’ budget remained in limbo.)
Keith Watters, who served on a D.C. Bar task force on court funding, says, “I don’t think that there’s any secret that both bar associations have pushed for adequate funding of the court.”
Watters made inquiries about the courts’ reasoning for refusing to participate in belt-tightening. “I was satisfied with their response,” says Watters. “In my dealings with them, they have had the utmost integrity. There’s never been a scandal at the court involving money.”
Beyond their sizable constituency in the District, the courts are not exactly entering the lion’s den when they appear before the D.C. Council. The council’s judiciary committee consists of several lawyers, including Lightfoot, who have active legal practices that require appearing before the very judges they’re supposed to oversee.
The courts may have money in the bank, but they are not immune to many of the same problems as the rest of the city government, including a well-stocked layer of midmanagement. Truth be told, years of rubber-stamped budgets growing at 5 or 10 percent a year have left the courts with some of the same bloat and inefficiency found in other parts of the city government. Their independence has fostered a hermetic atmosphere, a kingdom ruled by a few key players who keep a tight rein on information and a keen eye on public perceptions.
The courts’ royal family is headed by the chief judges of the Appeals and Superior courts, who don’t seem to have been chosen for their management skills. When she was appointed chief judge of the D.C. Court of Appeals, Annice Wagner was (and still is) the slowest judge on the bench, with a backlog of more than two dozen cases.
And Superior Court Chief Judge Eugene Hamilton is no One-Minute Manager. Hamilton is known as a really nice guy who has taken in 40 foster children over the years. But since taking over as chief judge, his performance has been less edifying. Hamilton’s one major promise upon taking office was to improve the orphaned and overburdened family court, but the family court task force Hamilton created has since collapsed in a heap, according to several members.
As the courts have grown and their administrative burdens have greatly expanded, the courts’ executive officer has become an increasingly powerful figure. The chief judges rely on Hammond to direct operations of the courts. A natty, dyspeptic bureaucrat, Hammond has taken to referring to himself as “Doctor” Hammond since receiving an honorary doctor of law degree in April from Kenyon College. As the courts’ chief executive, he has reflected and amplified the courts’ spendy ways. Hammond, who makes the same salary as a judge, has grown the budget of the courts’ administrative agency by $13 million and 28 people since he took over in 1990.
His professional lifestyle is equally profligate. When he moved into his new office, Hammond spent thousands of dollars renovating. Gone is the imitation wood paneling, the cluster of small reception desks, and the open door of the former occupant, Larry Polansky. The executive office now has marble-topped reception counters, plush carpeting, and Hammond’s opulent personal space, as far from the public entrance as possible.
Hammond spends a considerable amount of time traveling to conferences and networking events. He even accompanied a handful of judges on a three-week federal-grant-funded junket to Africa in August. Although Hammond is officially the courts’ spokesperson, he hired a public relations officer in April for at least $45,000despite pledges to the D.C. Council to freeze hiring nonessential court employees. When questioned by a reporter at the time about the decision, Hammond responded furiously, “Who are you to question my staffing needs?”
Hammond and the chief judges are just as stingy with budget information inside the court. Jean Bower, who retired in 1994 after 20 years as the head of the court’s Counsel for Child Abuse and Neglect office, says, “I think the structure of the executive officer, clerk of the court, and the chief judge as a leadership troika lends itself to problems. Nobody is allowed to be in the budget process.”
Even the majority of the judges never get to look at the budget, although most don’t seem particularly interested. Judge Murphy says that ever since he joined the court, during the Johnson administration, chief judges have managed the court without input from their peers on the bench. “You have one general and everybody else is a private. I’ve been around 29 years and I’ve never seen the court budget. We’ve all basically been told to stay out of it.”
The judges may be right in arguing that the city gets what it pays for. It may be no coincidence that the one branch of the District government that the budget-cutters haven’t raped and pillaged also happens to be the only one performing up to snuff. In fact, the court is now overseeing several other municipal functions by virtue of the dozens of consent decrees and court orders that have arisen from litigation over various District failings.
In defending their kingdom, the judges have stuck to a tidy, powerful message: The judiciary is one of the smallest branches of city government, its entire budget accounts for only 3 percent of all city spending, and it never overspends its budget (sadly, a mark of achievement in the District). They also point out that it’s probably not a good idea to defund the one functional component of District government.
Still, the courts’ financial imperiousness is inexplicable in the current budgetary environment. Lightfoot, despite making $800,000 a year practicing law before the very judges he’s theoretically responsible for overseeing, questions the courts’ no-show approach to the District’s money troubles.
At a budget hearing in March, Lightfoot asked Hammond and the two chief judges why court employees (and judges) were not taking pay cuts like the rest of the city’s employees. “Why is the court so different that you don’t have to participate?” Lightfoot demanded. “I want to state publicly how strongly I feel about this. When everybody else is sharing the pain of the budget crisis, your employees should have to as well. There’s an issue of fairness here.”
When the judges suggested that they would take the matter under advisement, Lightfoot warned them that his colleagues would not be happy that the courts were merely going to study budget cuts instead of enacting them. “Not in this budget climate, not this year,” Lightfoot said.
There are signs that if the courts remain unwilling to participate in cuts, some members of Congress might bring an end to their free rein. The courts’ performance at the March council hearing prompted Delegate Norton and Rep. Davis to introduce legislation to give the mayor more authority over the courts and to decouple the judges’ salaries from the federal pay scale.
But Congress as a whole is leery of turning over complete control of the city’s one functional institution to the likes of Mayor Marion Barry Jr. Naturally, the judges aren’t crazy about the idea either. “What would you accomplish?” asks Judge Murphy. “You make the rich people eat in the soup line for a week and see what it’s like to be poor. It doesn’t help to demoralize the institution. You get what you pay for. You pay people well, and you get good people and you get good justice. I believe in accountability, but we’ve never been a headache. If the people that are supposed to ask the questions don’t ask, are we supposed to volunteer for a hair shirt?”
Lightfoot thinks the court needs to come off the sidelines, but says he’s opposed in principle to the idea of forcing the court to take an across-the-board cut just for the sake of sharing the pain. In a recent interview, Lightfoot said, “Certain things should be done well and the administration of justice is one of them. I’ve been an opponent of dumbing down the government, and across-the-board cuts usually mean that all agencies work badly. If there’s waste or inefficiency, it should be eliminated, but I think basic services (like the justice system) should be adequately funded.”
No one wants to destroy the one functional branch of District government, but a little oversight might keep the courts leaner, more focused, and more aware that their constituency goes beyond the D.C. Bar. Political pressure from Lightfoot and the mayor may be the city’s best hope in convincing the courts that they are part of a larger fiscal ecosystem. They need to realize that towel service, chauffers, and private dining leave less money to go around for everybody else. And if public defenders, cops, and corrections officers don’t have the money to do their jobs, the courts will eventually suffer as wellas will the citizens of the District whom the courts are purporting to serve. CP
Art accompanying story in the printed newspaper is not available in this archive: Illustrations by Frank Cotham.