Thursday, February 25, 2010

The Greatest Part-time Job in the World, Part I

Wanted: Qualified person to work 20-30 hours a week, depending on assignment.

Salary: $127,252 per year.

—Nearly 7 weeks in vacation and personal days.

—12 holidays.

—Unlimited sick time.

—A pension worth 2/3 of the current salary after 16 years of service at age 60, and a pro-rated pension for fewer than 16 years.

—And every time the current salary is raised, the pension goes up by the same 2/3 ratio.

Too good to be true? Welcome to the world of a Maryland District Court judge.

District Court judges handle the least serious criminal and civil cases, the majority of cases in the state. They are the judges that most people encounter if they must appear in court as a witness or defendant.

But the District Court fails to do its share of criminal justice work. That was immediately apparent when I first practiced criminal law in Baltimore 23 years ago. And last spring I spent a day at each of the three Baltimore District courthouses to see whether anything had changed.


At the Wabash Avenue court Judge Miriam Hutchins easily had the heaviest docket with 52 cases. She took the bench at 9:30 and was done by 10:35, not to return again until the 2 p.m. afternoon docket. Nearly every morning docket at the Wabash courthouse finished within 90 minutes, and the afternoon dockets lasted no more than an hour.

It was much the same at the Eastside court the next day, where most of the morning courts concluded by 10:40 and the afternoon courts by 3 p.m. One judge with five cases on her docket spent only 20 minutes on the bench and left for the day at 9:30.

And then there was the Hargrove courthouse on Patapsco Avenue. Judge Askew Gatewood, the “duty” judge for the day—the one who is supposed to be available for things like search warrant applications from police officers—didn’t even drive into the parking lot in his Mercedes convertible until 9:15 for his 9 a.m. docket. After the morning session he left for a two-hour lunch while police officers waited to see him. Arriving 20 minutes late for his 2 p.m. docket, Gatewood was still finished by 3:30.

(Gatewood is the judge convicted in 2008 for dumping waste into the Patapsco River and who runs a real estate business “on the side.” See A Judge Above the Law and A Wink and a Nod.)

Judge Charlie Chiapparelli—he of the restaurant Chiapparelli’s in Little Italy—switched dockets with a retired visiting judge so that he didn’t have an afternoon docket, a little trick I saw more than once. He then raced through his docket of traffic tickets by ensuring that no one got any points against their driving record, no matter what their driving history. Chiapparelli finished in the courtroom at 11:22 and drove off for the day at 12:15.

But I didn’t feel too sorry for the visiting judge who got stuck with Chiapparelli’s docket because he had to be there “all day” anyway to get paid. He was done in the morning by 10:15 (as were most of the courtrooms), and after a pleasantly long lunch returned for one hour of work in the afternoon.

Not once in my three days of courtroom visitation did I see a trial. And the things that went on would take a book to describe. (See The American Right to Drive…No Matter What as just one example.) The culture remained almost exactly as I experienced it two decades before. I saw public defenders leaving for personal errands at 10:30, and a senior prosecutor postponed a case with a defendant in jail because she had made a doctor’s appointment for the late morning.

The District Court compiles “bench times,” the amount of time judges spend on the bench each day. Baltimore judges, handling the heaviest caseload in the state, averaged a little over three hours on the bench per day in the last fiscal year. Only three of its more than two dozen courtrooms averaged four hours or more per day. But judges who really need extra work on their golf game should go to western Maryland, where judges average two hours, 44 minutes in court for an entire day.

And it’s not as though District Court judges are buried under paperwork the rest of the time. They don’t handle complicated pleadings and motions, or issue written decisions. They sign orders (prepared by court clerks), read probation reports (written by agents), and not much more. The bulk of their work is performed on the bench in the courtroom—what you see is what you get.

One might expect an attitude of humility and appreciation for this life of relative judicial ease, but instead the judges exhibit a tremendous sense of entitlement. The Annapolis administrative court once tried to create a split afternoon docket in Baltimore County (for example, one at 2 p.m. and one at 3 p.m.). This would reduce waiting time for defendants and witnesses. A judge protested, “But that’s the only time most of us have to see our children play sports!” This must explain why Baltimore County judges average less than 3 hours on the bench each day, second lowest in the state.

The courtroom at Baltimore’s Central Booking Facility is a particular boon to family life because there’s so little afternoon work to do. Judges announce before regular working people, without the least tinge of embarrassment, that they plan upon early release to take kids to the zoo, stop by Nordstrom's, or go for a workout.  One bought tickets in advance for a 3 p.m. show. 

And now judges are assigned to Central Booking for a month at a time so they can plan all kinds of personal activities on the taxpayer dollar.

That is, when they are even scheduled for court.

In 2009, the 26 trial judges of Baltimore’s district court averaged over eight weeks scheduled out of court. That number doesn’t include sick days or snow days taken after the schedule came out, or any of their 12 holidays. While some judges probably took some administrative leave for training, fully half the judges were scheduled off for 40 days or more, and four were gone for 55 or more days.

One judge took off 49 consecutive court days. Absences like these are usually for medical reasons, but unlike regular employees judges aren’t required to use up other leave (or buy disability insurance) for such lengthy absences. This judge was gone another 47 days during the year for a total of 96 paid days out of court.

And now the Judicial Compensation Commission wants to raise District Court judicial salaries to $167,110 and their pensions to $111,295.

But it isn’t the bloated benefits that come with the part-time job that bothers me so much. It’s the fact that the District Court is of so little use to the criminal justice system.

And the responsibility for that lies not with the judges but with Maryland lawmakers.

I’ll explain in Part II.

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