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Statement of Vision and Leadership for the Courts of the District of Columbia by Chief Judge Eric T. Washington

Wednesday, July 1, 2009

Four years ago, in response to a request from the Judicial Nominations Commission for submissions from persons interested in serving as Chief Judge of the District of Columbia Court of Appeals, I submitted a Vision Statement that set forth my priorities for the District of Columbia Court of Appeals. Those priorities were linked to the District of Columbia Courts (DC Courts) 2003-2007 five-year Strategic Plan and included: (1) completing the renovation of the Historic Courthouse for the Court of Appeals; (2) reducing the court’s backlog of cases; and, (3) engaging in education outreach efforts to increase public awareness of the role of the courts. I am pleased to report that the Historic Courthouse has been fully renovated, the court has made substantial progress in addressing its backlog of cases, and our education outreach efforts, especially to area law schools, have been well-received. If I am honored by being re-designated to serve another four-year term as Chief Judge, I will continue to focus my attention on completing the court’s capital projects and on working to ensure that cases on appeal are resolved in a timely manner.

As you are aware, the Court of Appeals moved into the renovated Historic Courthouse in April of this year. While there have been several news reports and articles that have lauded the restoration work associated with the Historic Courthouse, as well as the historical significance of the building, very little has been said about the tangible benefits to the DC Courts that come from having a state-of-the-art facility for our highest court. The Historic Courthouse has provided the DC Courts with new training facilities that can provide distance learning opportunities for both our judges and staff. Further, the new Ceremonial Courtroom is capable of hosting large gatherings for ceremonial court functions, as well as for lectures and other programs related to the fair administration of justice.

While the Historic Courthouse has been the most visible of our renovation projects, it is only one of the many renovation projects that have been undertaken under the supervision of the Joint Committee on Judicial Administration (Joint Committee) during my tenure as Chair. Visitors to the Moultrie Courthouse are now greeted by a new state-of-the-art glass entranceway that provides greater security for the judges, staff, and court participants. Substantial work also has been done to renovate the cell block area and to enhance the working environment for the U.S. Marshals Service. The relocation of the Court of Appeals to the Historic Courthouse has enabled us to continue with the Family Court consolidation. Our next major undertaking, the renovation of Building C, will give us the necessary administrative space to enhance our ability to provide much-needed services for District residents.

While we have been engaged in several very ambitious capital projects over the last four years, the Joint Committee has also worked hard to ensure that the Courts’ operational budget is sound and approach to financial and/or fiscal matters is reasonable. We have been successful in getting clean and timely audits of our
financial records, and our financial controls are sound. We will continue to manage our finances in a way that is transparent and in keeping with generally accepted accounting principles. We are well-aware that our ability to maintain an adequate funding level in the future depends in large part on how responsible we are in maintaining strong financial controls over our current spending.

The Court of Appeals also has made tremendous strides in reducing the overall time on appeal for most of the cases filed since 2005, while continuing to reduce the backlog of older cases. I am pleased to report that in 2007 and 2008, with the cooperation of my colleagues, both active and senior, we have begun to show some real progress in reducing the time on appeal for many of our cases. For example, in 2007, the court decided 87 of the 100 oldest cases on our docket, disposed on more than 1800 matters, and resolved 75 percent of our cases within 90 days of the case being calendared or argued. In 2008, our filings increased by 200 cases over the 2007 filings and still the court was able to achieve a clearance rate of over 100 percent. While the move and transition to the Historic Courthouse during this calendar year may make a similar clearance rate unattainable, my colleagues and I are still striving to achieve a clearance rate of at least 90 percent, a number that would keep us in good standing nationally.

In addition to churning out cases, the court has rewritten its own rules to help streamline the appellate process for litigants. Further, the court revised its Internal Operating Procedures by establishing new time frames for the conduct of the court’s business and, established a formal Appellate Mediation Program. The cases resolved through the mediation program have cleared the court’s docket of several potentially complex and time-consuming appeals. Even when cases have failed to settle, benefits were achieved because the mediation process often assisted the parties in narrowing the issues on appeal, thus enabling judges to focus their attention on the real substantive issues before the court. For these reasons and others, I have proposed to the Board of Judges that we open the mediation program to parties in all cases who want to participate except, of course, in criminal cases. In order to administer the program properly, I am requesting additional funding in the FY 2011 budget to hire more staff trained in mediation program management.

Over the course of my four years as Chief Judge, there has been an increased emphasis on improving the bar disciplinary system. After careful vetting by the DC Bar and its Disciplinary System Study Committee, the Court of Appeals approved an amended Rule XI that made several significant changes to the bar disciplinary process including: (1) removing reciprocal discipline cases from review by the Board on Professional Responsibility (BPR); and, (2) granting Bar Counsel the authority to enter into negotiated dispositions based upon stipulated facts that, if accepted by a hearing committee of the BPR, would be presented directly to the Court of Appeals for final action without the necessity of BPR review. To assist in the handling of these new responsibilities, the court was able to attract two experienced attorneys to join its already outstanding legal staff.

This past year, the Joint Committee approved the Courts 2008-2012 Strategic Plan entitled, Delivering Justice: Strategic Plan of the District of Columbia Courts. A major focus of this 2nd five-year plan involves the development of court performance measures that will allow us to better assess our own progress in specifically identified areas key to the Courts vision of being “Open to All, Trusted by All, with Justice for All.” Our purpose in developing these performance standards is to move the courts closer to achieving our strategic goal of being a court system that is open and accountable to the community we serve.

Despite our modest success to date in improving our overall performance regarding timely cases resolution, I recognize that we still have work to do to become a model court in this regard. Therefore, I am considering additional changes to our current court practices that I believe will allow judges on this court to enjoy more consistent time in chambers to work on opinions. Among the proposals that I am considering are: (1) reducing the argument time for cases on the court’s Regular Calendar; and, (2) eliminating oral argument in cases that have been screened onto the Summary Calendar, unless argument is requested by the merits panel. The purpose behind both proposals is to limit the amount of time that is lost in preparing for and participating in oral arguments that may be of little or no consequence to the resolution of the cases. Limiting oral argument time in Regular Calendar cases will help discipline both the litigants and judges, and will allow me to schedule more cases to be heard on one day, thereby freeing the judges on other days to work on opinions. Eliminating oral argument for Summary Calendar cases should also allow judges more time to focus on those cases where the law is not as well-settled. I also intend to propose an increase in the court’s FY 2011 budget to hire an additional law clerk for each active judge and to hire two additional law clerks for our Central Legal Staff. Currently, each federal appellate judge has four law clerks. I believe that our extremely heavy case load, combined with the complexity of the appeals coming before us, argues strongly in favor of the additional funding.

These reforms, combined with the reforms already in place, should provide the court with the tools to move their cases to resolution more expeditiously. However, these reforms do not address another significant issue currently facing the court which is the need for judges on the highest court to have sufficient time to really think through and grapple with the very difficult issues that often come before us for resolution. For that reason, I am also open to discussing a more aggressive legislative approach to dealing with the backlog problem, including proposals to reform the entire court system by creating a Supreme Court for the District of Columbia and re-establishing this court as an intermediate court of appeals. We are at a real disadvantage vis-á-vis our sister jurisdictions when it comes to having time to really think through the very difficult cases. Most state high courts, including Maryland and Virginia, enjoy a largely discretionary jurisdiction and thus, hear and decide only the most important cases that seek their review. In pure numbers, those high courts entertain only about 15 to 20-percent of the number of cases this court must consider and dispose of each year. Unless and until the judges on the highest court of this jurisdiction have the same luxury of time to truly consider, grapple with, and reflect on the tough legal issues that come before us, we are going to be at a disadvantage in resolving the most important and difficult cases in a timely fashion.

I intend to continue the court’s educational outreach efforts in the coming years. We have held oral arguments at almost every law school in the District of Columbia, and the programs have always been very well-received. Beginning this fall, the court once again will be holding oral arguments at area law schools.

Soon after being designated as the Chief Judge in 2005, I asked my colleague Judge Stephen Glickman to serve as our liaison to the DC Courts Center for Education and Training and to the Superior Court’s Judicial Education Committee. My ultimate goal was to create a judicial education program for Court of Appeals judges. Under Judge Glickman’s leadership, we now regularly hold educational programs for our judges. Programs to date have included a legal writing seminar, a presentation on changes to the Model Code of Judicial Conduct, a discussion on the impact of foreign law on state court cases, and most recently, a presentation by a noted law professor and legal historian about the Supreme Court’s deliberations in Brown v. Board of Education. These programs have been very successful endeavors and have added greatly to the collegial atmosphere here at the court.

Finally, I am pleased to report that I remain in good health and am not aware of any issue that would negatively impact my ability to continue serving as Chief Judge of the District of Columbia Court of Appeals. My wife, Sheryl Webber Washington, and I continue to be blessed with healthy and happy children. Our oldest, Lindsay, has graduated from Occidental College and our other daughter, Erica, is a Sophomore at the University of Virginia. Eric, Jr. (Ricky) recently finished Lafayette Elementary School and will be attending middle school in the fall.

I continue to serve on the Foundation Board for the Boys and Girls Clubs of Greater Washington. My family and I remain members of Peoples Congregational United Church of Christ where I serve as an Assistant Scout Master for Boy Scout Troop 544.

Notwithstanding the challenges I have faced as Chief Judge over the last four years, I am very enthusiastic and excited about the opportunity to continue my service to the courts and to the community in this capacity. I also believe that I continue to enjoy the trust and support of my colleagues. Therefore, I request that the Commission re-designate me to serve as the Chief Judge of the District of Columbia Court of Appeals for another term. While I hope that this submission has fully satisfied the Commission’s request, if there is any additional information that the Commission would like me to provide, please do not hesitate to contact me.

Respectfully Submitted by
Chief Judge Eric T. Washington
District of Columbia Court of Appeals
June 30, 2009