This is a story with a back story.
We’ve been trying for weeks to get documents related to chronic absenteeism by a small minority of Jefferson District Court judges.
Insiders told Insider Louisville Chief Judge Angela McCormick Bisig is one of a group of female judges frequently absent from the court, a group that includes fellow judges Katie King and Michele Stengel.
Neither King nor Stengel replied to written requests for interviews left with court officials.
Bisig’s and others’ absences caused log jams, confusion and unreasonable workloads for the judges who do show up, say those sources, whose identities we agreed to keep confidential, because they have to appear before these judges, or work beside them as colleagues.
These particular judges are the judges who sort through the jammed criminal dockets in a court system that attorneys say is broken.
For two weeks, we tried to find out, and we know now this is a story that will have to be teased out over time.
Multiple sources told Insider Louisville that Bisig, among others, had extensive absences from her courtroom during 2012.
In an interview Thursday, Bisig told Insider Louisville that she hadn’t “taken a single day of vacation this year.”
However, the judge posted photos on her Facebook page of an April trip to New York City.
Bisig then confirmed she took “a long weekend” to go with her sons, adding that “any allegations of excessive absences are not true.”
What’s the truth?
We don’t know.
It’s nearly impossible to document the workings of the court, especially which of the 14 district court judges actually earn their paychecks, about $113,000 annually. (By comparison, Gov. Steve Beshear is paid $127,885 annually.)
Insider Louisville was denied documents, or told documents didn’t exist, only to find out they were public domain.
Beyond the stonewalling, documenting those absences and the additional strains they place on colleagues is difficult, because judges have virtually no obligation beyond personal scruples to show up.
We also came away with the feeling that at least one judge wants to tell the whole story, but can’t quite bring himself to do it.
District Judge Sean Delahanty doesn’t deny some Jefferson County District courtrooms aren’t in disarray.
But Delahanty won’t discuss the situation beyond vague assertions of lack of work ethic by other judges.
This very problem – backed up courts – was the driving force for a reorganization of Jefferson District Court last August.
Before that reorganization, judges were too frequently combining dockets, Delahanty said. That is, one judge doesn’t show up, so another judge has to fold that additional case load into his or her docket.
That’s still going on now, he said.
“The only reasons judges are supposed to combine dockets is vacations or emergencies, and dockets are getting combined way too often for other things,” Delahanty said.
He declined to go into detail.
In a story posted Wednesday on a survey of attorneys concerning the reorganization, Courier-Journal reporter Jason Riley quotes Delahanty as saying, “Some of these judges need to decide if this job interferes with their lifestyle, and I’m not going to say anymore than that.”
Which could be interpreted as a shot at Bisig, who appears frequently at social events featured in the Voice-Tribune newspaper, the Bible of Louisville’s social scene.
Pressed to address the major problems in the courts, Delahanty said, “There are things that will come out in time.”
“What he’s talking about is the lack of accountability the judges have in the way they spend their time,” said attorney Thomas Clay, a partner at Clay Frederick Adams, PLC.
Clay and other attorneys say there are two ways judges hand off their dockets – by calling a colleague and asking that judge to take their cases, or to call into clerks of the court, who would assign the absent judge’s docket to another judge.
Which is what causes delays and confusion, with judges not in their assigned courtrooms when defendants, witnesses and judges show up for trials and hearings, say our sources.
The system leads to a core of judges picking up the slack including Delahanty, our sources said.
“I defy you to find one attorney anywhere out there who will say my courtroom is broken,” Delahanty said. “You can come to my courtroom anytime you want. Courtroom 204. You come any day, and you can see how a court should be run.”
Asked to talk about the workings of the court or attorneys who don’t run their courtrooms as they should be run, he demurred.
Most elected officials have some mechanism that can be used for accountability whether it be records of votes, legislation or roads paved.
But not judges.
Delahanty told Insider Louisville that he doesn’t believe there are any documents that have data documenting the time judges are in the courtroom or the volume of cases they hear: “We don’t keep a record of attendance.”
“It’s an issue that needs to be addressed. And this is not an issue that just cropped up recently. There have been questions about this topic for years,” Clay said.
Jacob Conway, whose Website Mentors consults with local judicial campaigns and frequent Insider Louisville contributor, said he finds ridiculous allegations that Bisig is a chronic no-show.
Bisig, a former prosecutor, “had a stellar record” in that job, Conway said. “She was one of the people who was always there, later than her job required, longer than any other judges … a workhorse. It’s why no one ever ran against her before.”
Conway says he believes allegations that Bisig and other female judges are devoting less than their all to their positions connect back to possible resentment about more women winning judicial elections.
“This is the last ‘old boys club’ left in (Kentucky) politics.”
Two weeks ago, legal insiders told us about a survey of attorneys coming out Tuesday, August 21 that would expose the Jefferson District Court system as a system in chaos.
We went to Bisig to request a copy. Bisig was non-committal, telling us she didn’t know anything about any survey, and wasn’t sure if it would be public record if there was such a document.
We persisted. We asked who paid for the survey, aguing if it was paid with taxpayers’ dollars, it’s a public document. Bisig said she didn’t know.
We asked state officials, including Leigh Anne Hiatt, public information officer for the Administrative Office of the Courts in Frankfort, for the document. Hiatt never followed up on our request.
We asked local employees at the Administrators of the Court, and they claimed the survey didn’t exist, or referred us to state officials.
Wednesday night, Riley posted a story on the survey, a story that stated 53 percent of 164 lawyers responding disagreed or strongly disagreed the reorganization had enhanced administration of justice, with 10 percent agreeing. (Thirty-seven percent had no opinion.)
From Riley’s story:
Among the biggest problems cited in the survey are that the changes have led to too many combined dockets – those in which a judge took on their own cases as well as the cases of another judge who was either not in court that day or unavailable, backing up the process.
We tried to quantify attendance rates and workloads through the court dockets, which our sources told us judges must sign off on daily.
However, in an email response, Hiatt stated that’s not true (emphasis ours):
You … requested information about when individual judges are on the bench. The court system does not have any one document to provide that information. In addition, docket information does not provide a complete picture of when judges are working. When outside of the courtroom, judges may be preparing paperwork, reviewing probate files, ruling on default judgment motions and taking 24-hour calls regarding bond reviews, search warrants, emergency protective orders and mental inquest warrants. Judges can also have dockets on evenings and weekends. It is also important to note that judges determine their own schedules to meet the needs in their jurisdictions.
More as we solicit these documents.