Jun 11, 2009 An overburdened federal trial courthouse, in the nation’s capital
Last night I stopped by the annual D.C. Bar-sponsored meet-the-judges reception at the District of Columbia Superior Courthouse. I am of two minds about attending such gatherings, which I rarely attend. On the one hand, the situation is somewhat artificial because the lawyers’ conduct rules prevent me from talking about my most burning concerns and questions without my opposing lawyers’ presence. On the other hand, there is an artificiality, particularly in a land where democratic ideals are so widely touted — whether or not necessary — of having a mere human sitting up on an elevated judge’s bench in black robes with the power to lock up people and render other devastating decisions at a moment’s notice. T’ai chi teaches to know others by getting close up to them, so I attended.
The gathering was in the jury lounge, complete with a musical trio, unlimited wine and soft drinks for the admission price, and servers walking around with appetizers when leaving them on a table to get soggy would have done just fine. The jury lounge location was a strange juxtaposition to say the least.
I did not learn anything revealing about any of the judges. Then again, I did not make any effort to do so. I got more out of talking about some case strategy with some of my colleagues. Then I left.
In the interim, among those speaking to the crowd was Judge Royce Lamberth, who is the chief judge of the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia. Pricking up my ears the most were Judge Lamberth’s comments about the court’s overloaded docket thanks in part to the Guantanamo cases, from which I gather he means the the Guantanamo habeas corpus cases; and the court’s docket currently including prosecutions for tons of cocaine rather than just kilograms. (Here is the federal government’s take on the cocaine tons prosecutions during the closing weeks of the Bush Administration).
Judge Lamberth discussed the Guantanamo cases publicly as long ago as last March, and at that time had some choice words for all political parties for what he described as serious delays in filling vacancies on his court. Last night he forecast the possibility — or maybe just his hope — that Guantanamo cases would occupy significantly less of the court’s docket come this October, and said that visiting judges from other jurisdictions had been assisting on the non-Guantanamo cases, due to a shortage of enough judges in his courthouse to handle them.
As to the alleged tons of cocaine being prosecuted, I say that where there is a demand for drugs, there will be a supply. How many people would be turning to cocaine, marijuana and numerous other unlawfully-sold drugs if they had the funds and access to qualified physicians to prescribe them medication to assist their psychological and physical problems; if the funds and access to quality mental health counseling; and the funds, access, and will to live a balanced and harmonious life? How much are criminal prosecutions really going to suppress illicit drug use after all these decades of failure on this front?
In any event, I briefly spoke afterwards with Judge Lamberth. I have not appeared before him, but found him to be easy to talk with and apparently interested in interacting off the bench with lawyers. Had a prosecutor been present and had the lawyers’ professional conduct rules allowed, I would have repeated to him my formula for eliminating bursting court dockets: Legalize marijuana, heavily decriminalize all other drugs, eliminate mandatory minimum sentencing, eliminate the death penalty, and eliminate per se rules of guilt in drinking and driving cases. On the one hand, judges are not lawmakers. On the other hand, many lawmakers will listen more to such lobbying from judges than from me. Jon Katz.