Washington Lawyer

A Conversation With Chief Judge Rufus G. King III

From Washington Lawyer, January 2008

By Kathryn Alfisi

kingSince becoming chief judge of the Superior Court of the District of Columbia in September 2000, Rufus G. King III has prompted and overseen countless changes and developments at the court, from building renovation work and information technology improvements, to the creation of the family court and pro se resources, to the implementation of a strategic plan.

Washington Lawyer recently sat down with King to discuss past and current court improvements as well as future plans.

The last time Washington Lawyer talked to you was in 2001, shortly after you became chief judge of the Superior Court. There have been numerous changes at the court since then. Are you happy with where the court is now?
Very happy. My goal coming in was to foster an atmosphere or try to create an atmosphere at the court that would bring out the best in all of our talented people, and I think that’s happened.

We’ve had some major initiatives at the court in the past several years. Of course, the family court has seen a huge reorganization, which has been very successful. We’ve come a long way in improving the service that we provide to families who have to come to court.

The IT support for court operations has been a huge effort. I knew that it was going to be an important and preoccupying project, and it also has been very successful. We are the only court system in the country that’s at a Level 2 CMMI [Capability Maturity Model Integration] certification, which is a recognition that in installing our system, we followed the disciplined process designed to avoid the common pitfalls in large IT projects. [The General Accounting Office] has a protocol that they want you to follow, and with good reason, because the history of government IT projects and major conversions and installations has not been a happy one. We’re very excited; not only have we passed most of the real pitfalls, but also we have a good, solid system in place. It’s been a major effort that’s the result of the hard work of so many people who really stayed with it, meeting the deadlines and getting us up and running.

When did this IT effort start?
It started before I became chief judge—there were some needs-analysis studies done, and we looked at some possible vendors and such—but it really got underway when I came in and the court selected a vendor. Then what they call “go lives” started to occur in, I think, August 2003 at the family court.

What we’re talking about here is integrating all of our court systems so we don’t have what we had before, which was 19 different silos. If you were in landlord and tenant court and wanted to know about a criminal case, you would have to shut down the landlord and tenant program, open up the criminal program, and then close out of it before you got back into the landlord and tenant program. In addition, the old system only displayed the docket, while all court files were kept separately in paper files. Now we have one integrated system that you can access any part of, no matter what part of the court you’re in.

Our court is either the only one or one of a very few courts in the country that are able to do this. Other courts have really nice systems and easy-to-use packages, but they’re not courtwide, they don’t put it all together in one system. It’s a platform from which we’re going to be able to provide remote access like the federal courts, and we already have electronic filing that automatically brings documents into our docket and stores them electronically. It’s a huge change in the way the court does business.

How has the e-filing system been implemented?
It started in the major civil cases, our Civil 1 calendars, and now we have e-filing and remote access on all our civil action calendars. We’re moving ahead with further implementation, and ultimately it will be in place throughout the courthouse. Beyond that, we look forward to the day when people will be able to get onto our system from anywhere to look at the docket and file and transact business.

What was the initial reaction to e-filing? Were people hesitant to use this new technology?
The e-filing pilot program was immediately liked. The peculiar thing is the vendor we used for the pilot program was not the one we ultimately picked. That was not because there was anything wrong with them, but because we didn’t want a patch job for our e-filing system. We wanted an e-filing system that would be fully integrated into our case management system and was included as part of a package.

There was a little bit of concern about how people would react to having to learn a separate system that was different from the pilot system, but I think now people are very supportive of the system. It allows them to do electronic filing from their offices, and they’re very happy with that.

There are always going to be concerns with things like this because it’s new, it’s different technology, and there are always going to be some bugs to work out, but as a major technology initiative, our system, including the e-filing component, has been successful. More and more courts are using e-filing, but not so many courts are using e-filing that’s integrated into their full case management system.

Do you think the use of e-filing makes a substantial difference?
Yes, I think it has made a huge difference. When you use e-filing to file a case, it goes right into the docket with the document that you filed attached to it, so the clerks only have to be minimally involved, which frees them up to do other things. We’re already at the point where it’s much easier to file because people don’t have to come down to the courthouse to do it. In a civil case, for example, all of the service on lawyers for other parties, whether a motion is filed or the like, is included automatically when you use e-filing.

Tell me about all the changes that have gone on since the passage of the District of Columbia Family Court Act of 2001.
One of the changes brought about by the Family Court Act is that family court judges now have to certify that they’re willing to engage in training at a higher level than just the normal continuing education for judges. In the course of doing this training, the court is constantly interacting with other agencies such as the Child and Family Services Agency, the Department of Youth Rehabilitation Services, and the various bars.

We at the court have spent a lot of time and effort trying to figure out how to improve the family court, and a number of successful initiatives have come out of that. One of those is the Family Court Self-Help Center that provides people who have no lawyers with a resource. For ethical reasons the center can’t give legal advice, but it can provide people with information about what forms they need, where they should go to get certain things, and how the court works.

We have a fathering court that’s being run by Magistrate Judge Milton C. Lee Jr. It’s a sort of special-needs court where we’re trying to get in touch with fathers (because more than 90 percent of the people who have to pay child support are fathers) who would otherwise be unemployed—often they’re coming out of prison or drug rehab programs—and connect them with services and get them on their feet. The goal is to get the child support paid, but the way you do that is to help fathers get on their feet and get going, so the benefit is not only better child support collections but also a more engaged and supportive father for the child.

Another great initiative is the Program for Agreement and Cooperation in Child Custody Cases, informally called PAC. It’s run by Judge Odessa F. Vincent, and what it does is teach parents involved in custody disputes about how conflict impacts their children and how they can minimize its damage. At the same time in a separate meeting, the children are taught that as horrible as what’s happening to them is, they’re not alone. There’s a whole roomful of kids who are going through the same thing and can understand what they are going through.

One of the more exciting initiatives has been the Family Treatment Court, organized by Judge Anita Josey-Herring and now run by Magistrate Judge Pamela Gray. The traditional approach to drug-addicted parents, and in particular drug-addicted mothers because they’re usually the ones raising the kids, would have them come in under the abuse and neglect system, the children would be taken away, and their mother would be told what they needed to do to get their children back. For someone with a serious addiction, this type of approach can result in a very depressing, difficult situation where success is rare.

Family Treatment Court turns the whole thing around and has the family enter into a facility where the mom can get the treatment that she needs, while having her kids stay with her. Instead of saying “here’s what you need to get your children back,” we’re saying “come in and do this and get a handle on your drug problem before you lose your children.” It’s a positive situation rather than a disciplinary one. It’s a small program because it’s very labor intensive, but it has been very successful. One of the more moving things I have done as a judge is attend the Family Treatment Court graduations and watch these women who didn’t have a lot going for them or their children when they came into the program graduate with a sense of pride and a look forward to a brighter future.

The biggest family court accomplishment is that we’ve turned from a situation where we were barely keeping up with a docket of minimal supervision to one in which, because the Family Court Act included additional judges and magistrate judges, we now have more of the resources that we need. We handle the cases more appropriately, deal with the resources that are needed, and spend the time on them that’s needed, so just the basic day-to-day administration of justice in these cases has improved.

How close are you to achieving the goals set forth in the Family Court Act?
We can say with a great deal of pride that we’ve accomplished much of what the drafters of the act wanted us to accomplish. And let me interject here that the city owes a tremendous debt of gratitude to District of Columbia Delegate Eleanor Holmes Norton for her leadership in guiding the act through Congress so the end product created a good, strong court that she and all of us can be proud of. Of course that does not mean we’re at a point of rest. It’s an evolving situation and there’s always more work to be done, improvements that could be made, but I think we can look back at what we’ve done so far with a great deal of satisfaction.

There has been strong leadership and real commitment on the part of the family court judges. The family court started under Judge Reggie B. Walton, and then Judge Lee F. Satterfield was there for the negotiation of the act and the first implementation when it passed, and Judge Anita Josey-Herring followed him. A telling indication of the results of their strong leadership is that although judges are required to stay in the family court for at least three or five years—depending on the judge’s first date of appointment as a judge—almost none have wanted to leave at the first opportunity.

There also have been changes in the family court’s facilities.
We’ve done a huge amount of renovation and construction. The act charged us with creating a family court space that would be welcoming to families and children. All you have to do is look at the J-M level of the H. Carl Moultrie Courthouse to see the results. As with all court projects, a lot of people have a hand in its success. Joe Sanchez, facilities development officer; Lou Parker, Administrative Services Division director; the Family Court leadership; and others have all worked hard to make the space welcoming—it looks more like a school than a court. Judge Stephen Milliken came up with the idea of obtaining artwork from the D.C. schools for the court, and the schools responded with just unbelievable support, giving us 400 student paintings that we then framed and hung throughout the family court. The kids who come into court can now look at these paintings and say, “Hey, wait a minute, I’ve been in that class, I know that person, I know that teacher,” and that makes it an atmosphere that’s more comfortable for them.

We’ve had a very fortunate experience throughout not only with our management but also with the construction company. A lot of the work was done with a relatively small company called Hillian Brothers, and they’ve just put their heart and soul into making it happen on time and with a high level of quality.

Aren’t the renovations of the family court part of a courtwide overhaul of the D.C. Courts’ facilities?
The family court construction and the Old Courthouse renovations for the Court of Appeals, as well as some additional renovations in the Moultrie building, are all part of a 10-year development plan for the D.C. courts.

We’ve completed a lot of the family court renovation, and now we’ve reached an interim platform where all of the public functions at Moultrie are consolidated. There is still some additional consolidation work to do, but that depends on additional funding. That includes changing the entrance on C Street and adding a lamination that would expand the courthouse. Eventually the Superior Court will also expand onto the sixth floor.

One of important things that happened with consolidation is that we’ve brought a mayor’s liaison office into the courthouse that offers all of the services that typically surround a family case. So when a judge says to someone before him or her, “Let’s get you some parent training and drug treatment,” you don’t have to tell that person to show up in Anacostia [Washington, D.C.] two weeks later; instead, you can tell them to go down the hall, make a left, and go into the office where they can get signed up for these programs. It has made a huge difference.

Right now we are entirely on schedule consistent with our funding. Obviously, with a large series of projects like this there have been times when the level of funding has changed, which means we have to coordinate how we’re going to do the work to keep it moving without running out of funds.

Why is this work necessary?
The Moultrie Courthouse originally was intended to house 44 judges, so over the years we’ve just been packing in people. For example, common halls have had offices packed into them and hearing rooms have been turned into offices and vice versa. We are trying to create improved space to deal with this growth.

Eventually we’re going to move the Civil Division up to the fifth floor. The Probate Division already has moved into a renovated facility in Building A, as has the Multi-Door Dispute Resolution Division.

One thing the court learned pretty quickly is that you can’t plan on having everything completed in, say, five years; it’s an evolving process. There’s no final point where you can say, “This is the way it’s going to be for the next 50 years.” One thing I’ve been frustrated about is not being able to see the completion of a modern technology courtroom. We have very good support on our IT side and very good support on the recording side, but we don’t have the modern high-tech courtroom that many jurisdictions have.

One major issue the Superior Court has been trying to address is the lack of civil legal representation. What has the court done to try to improve access to justice?
There are two entities addressing this issue—the D.C. Access to Justice Commission and the Standing Committee on Access to Justice. The commission is looking at trying to improve access to representation in civil cases; the Standing Committee is looking at making the facilities accessible to people with disabilities and looking at court procedures to make the court experience a little less difficult, like making sure we have the very best interpreter services and things of that nature.

One exciting thing that I learned about at a court technology conference this year in Tampa, Florida, is that a number of people are looking into a Turbo Tax-type of approach to drafting court forms. It would allow a pro se litigant to come in, answer the questions on a computer, and then have the computer supply them with the right form. People would be able to do such things as file a divorce complaint or file a small claim. Ultimately, it would allow people to do this at remote sites such as the library. I’m really excited about it because it will help lower the barrier to access to justice. People have been working on this for a while now, but it’s just not one group doing a very expensive project, there are several vendors looking at it, which means the expense is going to go down and the rate of use is going to go up. I think we’re at the point now where we can actually look at making something like this happen, and that’s very exciting.

Earlier you mentioned the Superior Court is working on providing interpreter services. How difficult is this given the large number of non-English speakers in the District?
We’re blessed in Washington because we’re two miles from the U.S. State Department, which has access to any language in the world. Unlike many parts of the country, we can get an interpreter for anyone who comes into the courthouse. We also have a number of Spanish speakers on staff because now Spanish is really like a second language. We also have in-house signing capability.

One of the things I’m interested in looking at in the future is using videoconferencing when dealing with the more obscure languages. It might be more cost effective to have someone available by videoconferencing to do the interpreting.

Tell me about the various resource centers the court has set up for pro se litigants.
We have resource centers for small claims, landlord and tenant, probate and for the family court. The resource centers provide help for pro se litigants on both sides, so it’s not just an advocacy group.

The court has a small staff that we have dedicated to the Landlord and Tenant Resource Center and Small Claims Resource Center, but the lion’s share of the work is done by the D.C. Bar. Just as we in Washington are very fortunate in having access to all the languages in the world, we are very fortunate in having access to one of the strongest bars in the country. There are, I believe, more than 85,000 D.C. Bar members, about 25,000 of whom might litigate in our court each year, and about 2,000 to 3,000 of whom are at the court regularly. You’re talking about a huge talent pool. Traditionally, Bar leaders have shown a real commitment to making justice more accessible to everyone, and that has paid off. We had no problem finding attorneys to volunteer for the family court or Landlord Tenant Resource Centers. I think it was Ambrose Bierce who said, “A judge rarely does his job adequately unless the case is adequately presented.” Well, at an institutional level we couldn’t begin to do the things we do unless we had a good partnership with a strong bar.

Is there anything that you would like to see the Bar doing that it’s not currently?
Nothing that I can think of, although there are always things that come up—we’re looking at rules changes, for example, which we will work through the Bar. When we figure out the technology for integrating Turbo Tax-like forms into our IT system, we’re going to have to go to the Bar and ask for their help in drafting the text of the program. I’m not worried about this at all because I am confident that when I ask the Bar for its assistance, I’m going to get an enthusiastic and generous response.

The court recently held an unveiling of a postage stamp that promotes jury duty. Is that an area that needs promotion?
Having enough people turn out for jury service is a challenge. What I did pretty early on in my term was to put together a system of chasing down jurors who fail to appear in response to a jury summons. As a result, we have a small number of people who have to appear in court at a show-cause hearing and explain why they didn’t respond to the jury summons. It’s become so established that now the clerk will tell the person, “Alright, you’ve come down here and you understand that jury duty is an obligation and that we can sanction you for not living up to that obligation. We really want you to serve as a juror, so pick a day you can do it and we’re done.” That’s what happens in the vast majority of cases. It did establish that if you ignore a jury summons you will get sanctioned and could get arrested.

The big issue for us is the large number of jurors we need every year and the relatively limited population to draw from. The Superior Court needs more than 60,000 people a year on average, and it has to summon many more than that, so it’s a struggle.

Is there a solution to this?
I think it’s going to be a collection of small solutions. I’ve already mentioned the sanctions program to remind people that jury duty is a serious obligation that is not voluntary. We have done a lot of things on the incentive side as well. The D.C. courts Web site, www.dccourts.gov, which has won an award for being one of the top-10 court Web sites in the world, contains an interactive jury system that allows jurors to determine their qualifications, find out the dates they would have to serve, and defer service. A number of people have expressed gratitude about a quiet room that we provide. It’s a place where jurors can go work quietly or read; it has modems, faxes, and an Internet connection. We also provide child care for the jurors. We’ve gone to a one-trial, one-day system, so that if a juror isn’t selected for a jury on the summons day, he or she is done. There also is a broad consensus among judges about working with jurors. For instance, if we have a large jury pool that we have to get through, we’ll break it up into smaller groups so people can go shopping or go back to the office until their time for voir dire questioning comes up.

One thing you talked about in your 2001 interview with Washington Lawyer was your open chambers policy. Do you continue to have that?
Yes, absolutely. People are still able to talk with me every Monday morning between 8 and 9. Typically the people who come by want to know why a case isn’t working in their favor, and I then have to explain that there’s not really much I can do, because I’m not an appellate judge, but just an administrator in that context. I do, however, think it has been hugely successful in providing a sense of accessibility and openness to the courts.

We’ve talked about access to justice initiatives, the family court, and facility renovations. What other issues and projects are occupying the court?
Strategic planning has been another major item. For the first time in the court’s history a strategic plan has been completed, and in 2003 we put it in the implementation phase. There have been other plans but they were largely done by management, while our plan was done by the whole court—all the judges, all the stakeholders, various bar groups, the prosecutor’s office, and the defense bar.

We worked with a consultant, Dan Straub from Pittsburgh, who has done a number of court systems and is one of the leading consultants for this type of activity. He was a tremendous help to us and could bring us the perspective that we had gone farther along the path of implementing our strategic plan than any other court system. The strategic plan has called for a tremendous amount of hard work and participation in numerous meetings and surveys from up and down the court system. It’s being executed in five-year plans and we’ve just started the second one. I think we have accomplished a very precise and effective plan that will continue to be embraced by the staff, and we will continue to move aggressively along to implement it.

One thing I’ve learned about strategic planning is that it isn’t a situation where you do all this planning and then start implementing. It’s a dynamic, ongoing process where you bring together a number of initiatives in different stages of completion and try to make them part of a single, overall plan—a little like assembling a pipeline.

About two years ago, I started inviting every new court employee to meet with me, and I give them a copy of the strategic plan. I’ll chat with them about the values of the court, what we expect of them and what we hope they’ll contribute, and then I swear them in. I actually got this idea from Jet Blue where every employee gets a few minutes of face time with the chief executive officer of the airline. I thought this was a wonderful idea, and I think it has been well received.

What does the second part of the strategic plan involve?
The second part of the plan obviously isn’t nearly as complex an effort as the first one because we already have something in place, so now we’re just looking at how we can improve and update it.

What do you see as the greatest challenge now facing the Superior Court?
The challenge ahead will be continuing to develop the court as an institutional player among other parts of government. It is complex for us to do what is the core of our work, which is to try cases and make decisions, while at the same time collaborate with other government agencies to improve the way that things work. That’s a huge challenge and we will continue to look for new ways to allow us to improve the justice system.