Courage to challenge the system, courage Jefferson District Court judges lack

Category: In The Media

Savannah Dietrich has shown the courage to speak out and right a wrong.
 A profile in courage is being written in this town, and the backdrop is Jefferson District Court.
The writer is an amateur, but she could teach the professionals a thing or two. Because the people who earn a living at district court – judges, lawyers, administrators and clerks – are penning profiles in meekness.
The court and its courtiers refuse to do what young Savannah Dietrich did: Call a spade a spade and let the chips fall where they may.
Savannah plays poker – high stakes, all in. The people who run the apparatus that adjudicated her sexual assault prefer to play Go Fish.
Want to know which judges work and which don’t?
Go fish.
Want to review some public records?
Go fish.
Want to read the taxpayer-funded survey aimed at evaluating the court’s year-old reorganization plan? A plan that was aimed in part at making judges more accountable?
(Jefferson District Court has a long-standing problem of getting all 17 judges to, you know, actually show up in court and judge.)
Want to read that report? The one that says district court is as backlogged as ever? And that judges are as MIA as ever?
Sorry, pal. Go fish.
When police and prosecutors asked Savannah Dietrich what happened at a party one night last summer, she did not tell her questioners to go fish. She laid her cards on the table.
She was 16 at the time – angry, embarrassed and scared, no doubt. But when people asked questions aimed at unearthing an important truth, she didn’t demur or deflect or evade. She gave painfully candid answers.
Because Savannah was forthright and brave, two boys were held accountable for their wretched behavior. On June 26, they were forced to cop a plea. They will be sentenced soon on charges of felony sexual abuse and misdemeanor voyeurism.
Savannah was so incensed by the plea deal – and the judge’s order to protect her attackers’ anonymity – that she shouted the boys’ names from a mountaintop called Twitter. Their guilt will echo through cyberspace forever.
The shout-out put Savannah in contempt of court.
Ask any judge, even one sympathetic to Savannah’s plight, and he or she will tell you that this is a serious transgression. The legal system, they say, would dissolve into chaos if court orders were routinely ignored.
Savannah was forced to decide which was the greater wrong, disobeying a judge or accepting an arrangement that allowed her attackers to keep secret their predatory crime.
This young woman, now 17, was willing to risk six months in jail in order to blow the whistle on a pair of wrongdoers.
You can question Savannah’s motives and legality, but her courage is beyond reproach. Fate deals people dirty hands every day. You have to admire someone who refuses to fold.
The courthouse is no place for child’s play. Savannah Dietrich seems to get that. Barely more than a child herself, she has endured this ordeal in very grown up fashion – by doing precisely what we grownups always tell our children to do:
Stand up for yourself.
Do the right thing.
Be willing to accept the consequences.
The grownups who work at the Brandeis Hall of Justice aren’t following that formula very well.
Seems the Go Fish crowd features some folks who are partial to playing hooky. Several district court judges allegedly spend less time on the bench than Peyton Siva.
They don’t come to work for days, even weeks, at a time. Or they clock in five minutes before court starts and leave the second it ends.
At least one judge simply refuses to work certain cases. Probate is so tedious, after all.
There is ample reason to believe that these allegations are more fact than fiction. Records exist that will prove the case. Extremely basic records that taxpayers are entitled to review.
Insider Louisville has made multiple requests to review these records. For more than a week, we’ve been told to go fish.
It’s time to cut bait.
Kentucky’s open records law states the following:
“(F)ree and open examination of public records is in the public interest … even though such examination may cause inconvenience or embarrassment to public officials.”
I was a print journalist for 20 years. Here’s what I learned about public records:
When they make an institution look good, the PR peeps can’t hand them over fast enough. When they might make an institution look bad, the flacks hem and haw and drag their feet.
But ultimately they capitulate. They have to. It’s the law.
The people of Jefferson County have a problem – an old problem. A persistent, egregious, inexcusable problem.
Some of our district judges don’t come to work. Or work at work.
It’s been that way for decades.
To wit, the first paragraph of a Courier-Journal story that ran in May 2010:
“Fifteen years after a national study claimed Jefferson District Court was plagued by lazy judges who were accountable to nobody, dumped work on their colleagues and treated litigants like cattle, a makeover may finally be in the making.”
The makeover began last August, 16 years after the National Center of State Courts issued its scathing report. Last week, a survey of lawyers was released. Most of them called the makeover a flop.
Dame Justice entered the salon looking like Janet Reno and left looking like Camilla Parker-Bowles.
This is no exaggeration. Check out what Judge Sean Delahanty told The Courier-Journal before and after the vaunted reorganization plan took effect.
2010: “The system we have now hides malingerers.”
Last week: “Some of the judges need to decide if this job interferes with their lifestyle.”
Last night I tried to ask Chief District Judge Angela McCormick Bisig if the court had any tangible plans to actually address its absentee problem in the current millennium. She not only refused comment, she refused to hear the questions.
Bisig is angry at Insider Louisville about a story posted last week that accused her and two colleagues of chronic absenteeism – a charge Bisig vehemently denies and promises to refute. She is gathering documents to do so. It might take a few days, she said.
It shouldn’t.
There ought to be a simple, easy-to-read record of judges’ attendance. It’s not that hard to track. They are either in court or they are not.
Experienced court reporters and legal insiders believe such a record does indeed exist. It is kept for the purpose of ensuring that the same judges aren’t constantly asked to do extra duty – though that’s apparently a moot point in district court. Combined dockets, where one judge assumes an absent colleague’s caseload, are routine.
And so is legal gridlock.
Why the diligent judges put up with the gridlock – and the hooky – defies explanation. Why won’t they stand up for themselves?
They could, of course, just stand up for the taxpayers. That would be nice.
Judges are among the highest-paid elected officials in the state. A district judge makes about $113,000 a year, with generous benefits.
Aren’t taxpayers entitled to a day worked for a dollar earned?
Apparently not.
Since at least 1995, when the court was fingered for sloth in a national review, a handful of district judges have collected full-time wages for part-time work. Their industrious colleagues apparently think it’s OK. They are letting them get away with it, aren’t they?
Indeed they are.
In the recent survey of lawyers who work district court, only 20 percent of respondents agreed that “Reorganization has improved judicial accountability.”
Respondents also were asked to identify the court’s most pressing challenges. In other words, what’s your biggest beef?
The top vote-getter: Combined dockets.
At No. 3: “Judges Not in Courtroom During Scheduled Docket Hours.”
Can it be any plainer? Some judges aren’t working. They collect six-figure salaries for five-figure toil.
It’s a problem. It’s been a problem. Obviously, it will continue to be a problem until the slackers are smoked out – and voted out.
Delahanty deserves credit for consistently and pointedly acknowledging that some of his colleagues don’t pull their weight. The other 16 judges haven’t made a peep on the issue, save for Bisig’s insistence that she isn’t part of the problem.
Establishing one’s own innocence is important but, by now, wholly insufficient. This nonsense has persisted for far too long. It taints every judge on the district bench.
Guilt by association is a powerful indictment at times. Voters might need to ask themselves, “Why should we re-elect judges who enable other judges to cripple the legal system this way?”
All that is required for the triumph of indolence is for good people to do nothing. Jefferson District judges, lawyers, clerks and administrators have that part down pat. Nothing is their standard response on this issue.
Ask for the slackers to be identified on the record, and you hear nothing.
Ask for records, you get nothing.
The reorganization plan? It changed nothing.
Behaviors haven’t changed. Somebody isn’t pulling his or her weight down there.
Procedures haven’t changed. There’s still no means for charting attendance. None the public is privy to, anyway.
Savannah Dietrich named names. That’s dangerous, we were told, because acting in contempt of court undermines the system.
Agreed. But don’t judges who refuse to judge show contempt for the court as well? Doesn’t that undermine the system too?
What are the diligent judges so afraid of?
Savannah Dietrich risked going to jail. What are the judges risking? A breach of professional etiquette? A cross look in chambers?
Nobody likes a tattletale. But some tales have to be told. Some secrets need to be spilled.
Because silence protects the perps instead of the victims.
This community counts on district court to do an important job. It can’t live up to that responsibility if judges don’t do their jobs.
They volunteered for these jobs, after all, and they spent a lot of money convincing voters that they would do them well. Nobody campaigned on the slogan, “Vote for me – I’ll make sure Sean Delahanty works extra hard!”
We appreciate Judge Delahanty’s extra labor, and that of his silent colleagues who also go above and beyond. But that’s not what we pay for.
That’s not what we deserve.