Study criticizes Louisville court system, questions work ethic of some district judges

LOUISVILLE, Ky., (WDRB) -- The workload of Jefferson District Court judges is unbalanced, with some judges leaving early and others picking up the slack, one of several problems creating a "chaotic" system where cases are repeatedly postponed and justice appears "hurried," according to a national study.

"Some judges are overburdened, others have more free time and may leave early," according to a study of the local system by the National Center for State Courts. "Of particular concern were critical comments about the perceived work ethic of District Court judges."

Some judges are "resentful of the perceived uneven judicial workloads," according to the study, which began in October and finished May 24.

In addition, there are far too many unnecessary postponements for cases, creating a cluttered docket where attorneys scramble from case to case, leading to an overall perception that the justice process here is "very hurried, disordered and lacks the thoroughness" needed.

"This system does not work well," the study said.

There are, according to the study, too many continuances for cases, significant down-time for judges and "probably many erroneously issues unnecessary bench warrants."

Local judges are accountable to nobody with no monitoring or tracking of their work habits and how they are handling their cases, according to the study.

Many of these findings are not new.

There have long been similar complaints about Jefferson District Court. Judges have no set amount of vacation time, no set hours and can dump work on colleagues with no accountability.

In fact, a study by the center more than 20 years ago came to similar conclusions, finding that district court was plagued by lazy judges who were accountable to nobody and treated litigants like cattle.

The latest study says that some judges leave the courthouse by 2:30 p.m. or 3 p.m. most days, calling "into question whether there are too many judges or cases are assigned in an inefficient way that leaves some judges too much time on their hands and other judges too busy.

"At the very least, it casts a bad public perception on the bench and could well damage public confidence in the Court."

The study claims there doesn't seem to be a "strong collective sense of responsibility on the part of the judges … to help each other manage the overall workload of the Court."

While some judges acknowledged leaving the courthouse when their docket was complete in the early afternoon, they argued that paperwork could be done at home. And judges said they left early sometimes because of night court responsibilities.

The study concluded "it is unlikely that the public believes that judges are doing work at home they could be doing in their chambers."

In many states, according to the study, judges are not allowed to leave the courthouse early without authorization from a supervisor or chief judge.

Kentucky Chief Justice John Minton said he has met with the judges and is working with them to address concerns in the report. He noted that Jefferson County District Court is unusual given its size and the number of people and cases judges see everyday, making for "unique challenges and demands."

But, "we need to be prepared when they open those doors to deal with the demands of the public and frankly … we are not doing that," Minton said in an interview. "The district court bench in Jefferson County ought to be the model court in Kentucky. Today it is not. These judges need to be committed to making that happen."

The study also noted there are concerns about the "excessive numbers of continuances requested and granted" for cases, often with no good reason. The constant delay of cases is a "general expectation" among attorneys and works to the advantage of defense attorneys, according to the study.

For example, the center looked at 200 recently closed cases and found an average of nearly eight pre-trial court hearings for each case, which is "high" for similar sized court systems.

The delays waste time and cause witnesses, victims, attorneys and defendants to make "unnecessary trips to the courthouse, wait long periods in court only to have their case postponed, and ultimately can discourage witnesses from appearing a second, third or fourth time," the study says.

"Every scheduled event should be viewed as an opportunity to dispose of a case appearing before the Court," according to the study.

The study spread some of the blame for chaotic dockets to attorneys, who often appear before judges unprepared.

"Whether this is caused by overwhelmed and confused litigants; by attorneys who had too many cases and weren't familiar with their assigned or reassigned cases, lacked adequate discovery, or struggled with poor work processes or habits; couldn't be determined."

In addition, there is a "local legal culture" in Jefferson County where cases are not expected to be resolved quickly, according to the study.

And one judge said the state crime lab is backed up six to eight months, delaying evidence needed to resolve cases.

Among the study's recommendations:

  • Look into implementing a system where cases are divided equally among the 17 judges. 
  • Track case delays -- including who requested it, why and which judge granted it -- and publish the findings periodically for internal review. In high performing courts, cases are not passed more than an average of 1.5 times prior to disposition.
  • Give attorneys and defendants a set time to plea bargain a case, rather than allowing the case to drag on for years.
  • A binding vacation, sick, and leave policy applicable to all judges should be developed.
  • The Kentucky Supreme Court should empower the chief district judge to "supervise, coordinate and administer an efficient, balanced case processing system." And the chief judge should monitor vacation time ensure cases are being adjudicated in a timely manner.
  • A task force should be created to explore ways to schedule cases and reduce downtime.

In an interview Tuesday, Jefferson District Court Judge David Holton said there are some "reasonable suggestions" in the study, but the report was flawed in some areas because of a "lack of understanding of the system."

Holton, who has been on the district bench since 2009, said a reorganization of district court in 2011 made the judicial workload much more proportional than it was in previous years.

And he balked at the claim that the judicial process was disorganized and not thorough.

"I believe the public interest is served well by our court system," Holton said. "When you have the volume of (cases) we have, it will appear disorganized. That's the nature of the beast here."

He said the judges have created work groups to look into some of the suggestions by the study.

Jefferson District Court Judge Sean Delahanty said the study was too heavy on "anecdotal" comments without backing statistical evidence. However he believes Chief Justice Minton is using the study to create "some kind of system where there is increased accountability of each individual judge. I think that is his ultimate goal. I do think there are better ways to process cases than we are doing now."

Minton said there needs to be a "focus on balance among judges as far as work load. The chief (district) judge needs to have more authority over the management of the court. The study points out that there is a great deal that needs to be done."

Judges, he said, need "commitment to spend the full work day" at the courthouse. "We need to make that happen."

Chief Jefferson County District Court Judge Anne Haynie says she welcomes the recommendations and agrees changes are needed.

“It will be a challenge,” Haynie said, “It will be a huge challenge, but we know that we can do things better.”

District Court handles misdemeanor crimes, felony probable cause hearings, civil suits involving claims of $5,000 or less, domestic violence cases and involuntary mental commitments, among other things.

Ten judges handle criminal cases and seven judges oversee the civil docket, among other responsibilities.

This study was requested by the Kentucky Administrative Office of the Courts and funded through a federal grant.

Center workers looked at cases, studied available statistics, interviewed numerous judges and court staffers and observed court proceedings for three days late last year.

The study itself is below:

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