The Courts' Core Programs
In comparison to other state courts, the D.C. Courts have the largest per capita caseload of any jurisdiction, nearly six times the national average9. In 1999, there were 144,244 new case filings in the court, and 167,700 dispositions in the Superior Court. The latter amounts to an average of 2,842 case dispositions per judge in 1999, or approximately 11 cases per day per judge. The judges are of the highest quality10. They are respected in this bar for their intellect, their judgment and their demeanor.
The demographics of the District of Columbia have contributed to the service demands. Over 19% of the city's population lives below the poverty level, and 33.7% of the city's youth lives below the poverty level. Many of these young people find their way into the juvenile system, and, to its credit, the Courts have understood that providing alternatives to the dead end of incarceration is a priority. Thus, the Superior Court has a wide range of diversion programs for juvenile offenders and supports programs that educate youth about the justice system and facilitate access to the Courts. The Superior Court has a number of programs that help it deal with its very high case volume, and that enhance the quality of service it is able to provide to the public. Many of these programs serve as models for other jurisdictions.
The Multi-Door Dispute Resolution Division provides a variety of alternative dispute resolution services, including Civil Mediation, Arbitration, Case Evaluation, Tax and Probate Mediation, Domestic Relations Mediation, and a Child Protection Mediation Pilot that began in April of 1998. Mediations, arbitrations, neutral case evaluations and conciliations are performed by over 500 "neutrals." In 1999, over 5,000 disputes were handled by the division, of which over 1,900 were settled. In addition, over 2,289 persons were helped through the case evaluation and referral services of the division. In its 1999 Annual Report, the Courts noted that judges, attorneys and court administrators from over three-dozen countries visited the Multi-Door program to study its design and operation.
The Office of Court Interpreting Services assists jurors and litigants who are hearing impaired or who do not understand English. In 1999, the court reported 4,703 requests for interpreter services, including 3,393 for Spanish language, 452 for other languages, and 858 for sign language and related accommodations for hearing impaired persons.
The Juror/Witness Child-Care Center provides day care for children ages 2 to 14 years old whose parents or guardians are serving as witnesses, are litigants, or have jury duty or other business with the court. This program is very important for jurors and witnesses who would otherwise be unable to participate in or would be sorely distracted from their court-related needs and obligations. The Courts reported that over 1,000 children were cared for at the Center in 1999.
The Courts see a distressing number and variety of cases involving children and families; and it has developed several programs to address the special justice issues these cases present. In 1999, the court was able, along with the Time Dollar Institute, to start the Youth Court, a new grant-funded diversion program for juveniles. Under the grant, diversion referrals were increased to include no-papered, regular diversion and consent decree cases, as well as diversion cases from the Metropolitan Police Department. The goal of the program, which is modeled on Youth Courts in other jurisdictions, is designed to reduce the rate of recidivism among youthful offenders. As described by the Courts,
In Youth Court, first-time offenders are sentenced by a jury of their peers to community service, restitution, jury duty, a verbal and/or written apology to the victim and/or the offender's parent(s), and/or possibly additional elements such as writing an essay or participating in counseling11.Upon completion, the participants are encouraged to serve as volunteers on other juries and to be trained as counselors.
The Juvenile Drug Court, which began in the fall of 1998, is a twelve-month case management and substance abuse treatment program designed to promote abstinence and healthy living. It involves judges, defense attorneys, prosecutors, probation officers and treatment service providers in the process of monitoring the progress of its juvenile offenders. Juveniles in the program must appear regularly before the Drug Court judge, be tested for drugs twice a week and participate in supervised substance abuse and drug education. The program, which is funded by the Courts, demonstrates a commitment to helping youthful drug offenders gain the services they need to sustain more positive choices.
The Superior Court has a Domestic Violence Coordinating Council both to relieve pressure on the Court's docket and better to deal with one of society's most difficult and important issues. The Domestic Violence Unit processes both criminal and civil domestic violence cases. It began with three judges and a hearing commissioner, all of whom served in the unit for one year. It now has four judges and a hearing commissioner. In 1997, there were 9,656 cases before the unit for disposition; 4,582 intra-family cases; 4,405 criminal cases; and 669 paternity and support cases. By 1999, the total number of cases in the unit was 10,452. Persons seeking help through the unit are assisted by the Domestic Violence Intake Center, which combines grant-funded court personnel with federal and city personnel and community organizations to provide comprehensive services.
The Courts also co-sponsor a number of programs which rely in part on volunteer efforts by judges and other court personnel. For example, the D.C Bar Pro Bono Program sponsors the Pro Se Divorce Clinic at the Superior Court for persons who want a divorce but lack the funds to hire an attorney. The Superior Court has also worked with the Bar to develop user-friendly pro se forms for a variety of domestic relations cases. Several judges also participate in and support the Street Law Program to educate public high school students about the law.
The Courts need to continue to develop their programs. These programs make the Courts and their services accessible to the public and offer interventions that explore positive alternatives to the otherwise dunning processing of distressed and dangerous lives, particularly youthful lives where there is reason to believe that innovative alternatives will take root.
- Statistics in a report by the National Center for State Courts, Examining the Work of State Courts 1998, consistently rank D.C. first, on a per capita basis, in terms of the number of civil, criminal, domestic violence and appellate filings.
- Judges of the appellate court and the trial court are appointed by the President of the United States with the advice and consent of the Senate. D.C. Code §11-704. The President selects from a list of three candidates chosen by a merit selection panel, the Judicial Nomination Commission, to which the D.C. Bar appoints two members. See §433 of the Home Rule Act, Pub.2-93-198, 87 Stat. 796, D.C. Code, Vol. 11 Appendix.
- District of Columbia 1999 Annual Report, at 63.