By Mark Coomes
Judge not, and ye shall be judged.
Not judging is a favorite pastime of certain Jefferson District Court judges. It’s been that way for 20 years.
This chronic absenteeism is an open secret – and an open sore – in the Louisville legal community.
But because district court keeps no attendance records – and because diligent judges won’t blow the whistle on their indolent colleagues – it has been heretofore impossible to identify the slackers.
Insider Louisville has begun to quantify the elusive problem of lax attendance on the district court bench.
Using the court’s own Daily Disposition Reports, obtained via the Freedom of Information Act, we discovered that two judges – Katie King and Michele Stengel – each missed more than 100 days of work during the past two and a half years.
Between Feb. 2010 and June 2012, King was absent from her assigned courtroom for the equivalent of five and a half months. Stengel: six and a half months.
Moreover, insiders say King was habitually late to court last year. She even brought her new puppy to work for a spell. Support staff had the pleasure of looking after it, though service dogs are the only animals permitted in the Jefferson County Hall of Justice.
Stengel’s lassitude was less florid but more frequent. She was absent on 130 occasions, 22 more than King.
There might be reasonable explanations for the excessive absences. For some of them, anyway.
We tried for two days to contact King and Stengel through the court’s chief publicist, but never heard from either. We’re not entirely sure that King and Stengel got the message.
Leigh Anne Hiatt, public information officer, Kentucky Administrative Office of the Courts in Frankfort, has a low opinion of blogs and a high opinion of the judges’ need to focus their full attention on the three-day training seminar they attended this week in Cadiz, Ky.
At least we know Stengel and King were present and accounted for those days.
King and Stengel aren’t the only judges who take excessive time off, sources in the legal community say. Their names simply were mentioned most often during discussions of the court’s absentee problem. So we started our investigation there.
This is an ongoing investigation. Records for other judges have been requested and will be reviewed.
It is important to note that the 17-member district term includes many judges who work long, hard and often. In fact, they must work extra hard in order to cover for absent colleagues.
But they can’t put their finger in every dike.
As a result, retired judges are often summoned to fill in. These pinch hitters must be paid, and the extra expense taps the coffers of an organization already straining to cope with budget cuts. (A current judge recently told Insider Louisville the court lacks adequate supplies of pens, notebooks and garbage bags.)
Retired judges substituted for King and Stengel on more than 120 occasions during the 29-month period we reviewed. The cost: unknown. We asked Hiatt on Tuesday how much retired judges are paid to preside, but the request was not acknowledged.
Whatever the cost, some of it is unavoidable. Colleagues can’t cover each other on every occasion, and judges clearly are entitled to a reasonable amount of vacation, sick days and personal days.
What constitutes a reasonable amount? No one knows. There is no objective standard – no stipulations whatsoever regarding the amount of time a judge can take off.
“(We are on) the honor system, I guess,” District Judge Sean Delahanty told The Courier-Journal last month.
Some district judges treat the honor system as carte blanche. This is not a new development. Judges have been taking advantage of the lax system for years, long before most of the current court was elected.
In 1995, a legal watchdog group excoriated the work habits of Jefferson District Court.
According to The Courier-Journal, a study by the National Center of State Courts said the court “was plagued by lazy judges who were accountable to nobody (and) dumped work on their colleagues.”
Fast forward 15 years. Same as it ever was.
Complaints about spotty attendance were among the factors that prompted the court to reorganize last August.
A year later? Same as it ever was.
In a survey of lawyers released last month, only 20 percent of respondents agreed that “Reorganization has improved judicial accountability.”
Lawyers were invited to add anonymous comments to the multiple choice survey. Jason Riley, the Courier’s courts reporter, posted some of those remarks on his blog. This one is especially piquant.
(Reporter’s note: “Term” is a term that refers to the judges as a collective whole.)
“Judges miss court without explanation. … (T)hey are routinely 10-15 minutes late to court. … The term is quickly developing a reputation as self-centered, lazy and unprofessional.”
Is the reputation warranted?
It’s hard to know for sure. No one on the court will address particular allegations, not even in self-defense.
Contacting the judges this week was complicated by the fact 16 of the 17 judges spent Monday through Wednesday at Lake Barkley State Resort Park for the annual District Judges College. Truth is, however, the judges weren’t much less accessible in Cadiz than they are on a normal day at Sixth and Jefferson streets.
It’s never easy to contact a judge; they are busy people. (Most of them, anyway.) But it’s not impossible, either. It certainly is not unreasonable to expect a prompt response to new and substantive questions about judges not coming to work.
It’s dicey to shout “J’accuse” at sitting judges. They are powerful people. But it must be said that Jefferson District Court, which owns a long history of accountability problems, is once again failing to be accountable.
For example, Judge Angela McCormick Bisig, the chief district judge, declined an interview request on Tuesday. It is apparently beyond the purview of the court’s titular leader to address personnel issues that impact the court’s ability to function efficiently.
Nevertheless, here are the facts as best we know them:
The reports we reviewed are derived from daily court dockets. Dockets are a list of the cases scheduled on a given day. A judge’s rulings are compiled in a Daily Disposition Report. When the judge signs the report, his or her rulings become a court order.
The Disposition Reports are the only means available for establishing whether a judge was in his or her assigned court. They are not, we are told, a perfect reflection of attendance. e.g., it is possible (though unlikely) that a judge might preside in a court other than her own, leaving her docket to a substitute.
This rarely happens. Usually the dockets are combined, to the dismay of judges, lawyers and litigants alike. Combined dockets cause the legal system to bog down.
Kentucky courts don’t keep attendance records for judges. However, people who know district court infinitely better than we do told us that the Disposition Reports could be used to create a satisfactory attendance record – by reverse engineering, as it were.
The premise is simple.
Each judge is assigned a court. If the judge signed her court’s Disposition Report, we presumed that she was on the bench that day. If someone else signed it, we presumed she wasn’t. (1.)
On 108 occasions between Feb. 2010 and June 2012, someone other than Katie King signed the daily reports from the court assigned to King.
Someone other than Michele Stengel signed the daily reports for Stengel’s court on 130 occasions.
A normal work week is five days; 130 divided by 5 is 26 weeks. That’s the equivalent of nearly 6-½ months.
King was absent from her court for 21.5 weeks, or roughly 5-1/2 months.
That’s a lot of time away from the office. It’s about twice as much time as you would generously call “normal,” which we’ll define as three weeks of vacation and one week of personal and/or sick days per year.
We’re told that, barring serious health issues, diligent judges take off fewer than 20 days a year.
In 2010, Stengel was absent for 20 days in February and March alone. During those same months last year, King was MIA for 19 days.
When King did show for work last year, court insiders say she was frequently late. Judge David Bowles and Judge Erica Williams were assigned to courtrooms adjacent to King’s. They frequently had to start King’s docket for her – a doubly onerous chore for Williams, who was pregnant at the time.
As if being late or absent weren’t disruptive enough, King occasionally brought her puppy to work last year. Sources say court aides were pressed into pet-sitting duty. They also say King sometimes left the bench in the middle of her docket in order to walk the dog.
The puppy vanished after a memo was circulated to (ahem) remind everyone that pets aren’t allowed in the courthouse.
Only one specific was offered regarding Stengel’s comportment in the workplace. It’s said that she rarely tries a case, a curious avoidance for someone who collects $112,668 a year to work as a district judge.
(For the record, Stengel is the ex-wife of Commonwealth’s Attorney Dave Stengel. King is the daughter of Metro Council president Jim King.)
Disposition reports indicate that Stengel was absent from her assigned courtroom for 51 days in 2010, 58 days in 2011 and 19 days during the first six months of this year. She also took half-days off in March and April.
King’s courtroom records indicate that she was absent for 31 days in 2010, 61 and a half days in 2011 and 15 days through June 30, 2012.
There is a similarly peculiar pattern to King and Stengel’s absences. Most of them are scattered around the calendar like buckshot.
They take entire weeks off here and there, but otherwise there is little to suggest that a great deal of planning is involved. In fact, records indicate that on many occasions a substitute had to be found on short notice. The fill-in judge’s name isn’t printed on the daily docket.
Perhaps there are good explanations for each and every absence – an illness, a family crisis or a work-related reason for not being in court. Or maybe the disposition reports are wildly inaccurate.
We simply don’t know, and King and Stengel have so far declined to tell us. And it’s not for lack of opportunity.
Even if they were completely indisposed in Cadiz this week, our interest in discussing their work attendance should come as no surprise. We requested their dockets last Wednesday; surely they were informed. And both judges were cited by name in an Aug. 24 story by Terry Boyd and other IL contributors that addressed the issue of chronic absenteeism on the court.
It’s odd that Stengel and King haven’t rushed to defend themselves from such serious allegations.
It’s also odd that no one has contacted us on King or Stengel’s behalf. If the allegations were false or exaggerated, surely someone – a friend, a colleague, a pet sitter perhaps – would rattle our cage to say so.
It’s risky to read too much into silence, even silence is all you have.
We had to let the records do the talking.
They have nothing flattering to say.
[1. Occasionally judges preside over an entire docket but, for various reasons, a different judge signs the disposition report. However, the report always notes the judge of record for each case, regardless of who signs the report. This information can be used to establish who actually presided that day.]
About Mark Coomes: Contributing blogger Mark Coomes’s journalism career includes staff positions at The Courier-Journal, USA Today, Florida Today and The Monroe News Star.