The Judge was 45 minutes late taking the bench, while prisoners, counsel, [and] witnesses were waiting, and did not explain the delay. A good deal of chatting went on in the courtroom[; it was] not well controlled. Most matters were handled in bench conference, and the Judge did not give reasons for rulings following these conferences.5
At one point the defense attorney was getting kind of out of line, and she gave him a warning.... After he made another rude comment to a NOPD detective… she called all of the attorneys to her chambers in order to make sure it didn't go any further. I was really impressed with her poise and how she handled [some] pretty intense/crazy attorneys.
It was interesting the way the jury was picked. The Judge was clear in her questioning and explained every aspect of the process to the jurors. I felt like the process ran smoothly and all of the people were aware of each specific portion of the trial, how it would run, and if they had any reason not to serve.
In this case, the female defendant was unaware that she would possibly lose [government assistance] by pleading guilty…. The Judge was very nice about making sure the defendant knew the possibility of this happening, and practically insisted the defense lawyer explain to her what may happen.
Procedurally fair courtrooms are respectful, helpful, neutral, and understanding towards defendants and the public, and CWN volunteers rated Judge Flemings-Davillier as the seventh-most procedurally fair Criminal Court Judge (out of 12) in the first half of 2014. The American Judges Association and the Conference of Chief Justices endorse procedural fairness because “extensive research demonstrates that in addition to providing legal due process, it is important [for courts] to meet the public’s expectations regarding the process in order to increase positive public perceptions of the court system, reduce recidivism, and increase compliance with court orders.” For more on procedural fairness, read CWN’s 2014 Report or go to proceduralfairness.org.
CWN volunteers therefore rated Criminal Court’s twelve trial Judges on a variety of metrics taken from national best practices and related to procedural fairness, including timeliness, respectfulness, use of plain English, and maintaining a neutral and transparent courtroom. Using these subjective ratings, CWN then compiled a ranking of how procedurally fair CWN volunteers perceived each Judge to be.3
Judge Flemings-Davillier took the bench (a median time of) twenty-five minutes after her courtroom was supposed to start in the first half of 2014. According to the American Bar Association, “[a] judge should be evaluated on his or her… [p]unctuality and preparation for court.”³ Every day each section of Court issues subpoenas to witnesses, attorneys and defendants, ordering them to appear at a particular date and time for the next hearing in their case, and each Judge can choose the court start time listed on his or her section’s subpoena. Subpoena recipients are then legally obligated to be present in court at the court start time. Most sections have a subpoena start time of 9:00 a.m. The following chart therefore reflects the median delay (in minutes) between each section’s subpoena start time and the time Court Watch NOLA volunteers observed the Judge in that section take the bench in the first half of 2014.⁴
The Metropolitan Crime Commission ranked Judge Flemings-Davillier as the twelfth most efficient Judge (out of twelve) in Orleans Parish Criminal District Court in 2013, but noted that she “was elected to serve in the section of court with the largest inventory of pending cases.” The MCC measures judicial efficiency “by examining each judge’s inventory of open felony cases, percent of open felony cases more than one year old, and the time it takes to close felony cases. These performance measures are based upon standards established by the American Bar Association (ABA). In a study commissioned by the judiciary of Orleans Parish Criminal District Court, the National Center for State Courts confirmed the metrics applied by the MCC are valid and reliable indicators of judicial performance. The random assignment of cases should result in caseloads balanced in size, intricacy, and difficulty. Therefore, assessing court performance in these areas offers a uniform and established gauge of the efficiency of each judge’s felony case management practices.” MCC 2013 Orleans Parish Judicial Accountability Report (text and chart used with permission of the MCC).
¹ Court Watch NOLA believes that our public servants, including Judges, attorneys, and law enforcement officers, must be accountable to all citizens, and not simply to their colleagues and the bench and bar. Therefore, and in addition to the objective data presented in CWN Reports, volunteers also make more subjective observations regarding the Judges, prosecutors, defense attorneys, and law enforcement officers who are present for or testify at hearings and trials. These narrative observations are snapshots of one volunteer’s personal opinion regarding one particular day in court, and do not represent the position or opinion of Court Watch NOLA, its officers, or its directors. Court Watch NOLA attempted to select three positive narrative observations and one representative critique from 2013 for each section of Criminal District Court. Some of the narrative observations were edited for grammar, spelling and/or length, but not for substance.
2 CWN volunteers observed data regarding or rated Criminal Court Judges on a variety of metrics related to procedural fairness throughout the first half of 2014, watching them on weekday mornings for, generally, two or more hours at a time. For each morning, volunteers were asked to contemporaneously note the time the Judge first took the bench and whether the rules of court were posted or explained to defendants and the public. Once the observation period ended, they were asked to rate the Judge with regard to the remaining metrics listed in this chart (and explained in CWN’s Report for the first half of 2014) on a scale of 1-5, with one signifying that the practice at issue “never” happened during the observation period, three signifying that it “occasionally” happened, and five signifying that it “always” happened.
Court Watch NOLA then compiled all of this data for the first half of 2014 and averaged the volunteers’ ratings or data with regard to each Judge for each of the eight metrics included in the chart. For each metric CWN assigned 12 points to the top performing Judge, 11 points to the Judge with the second-highest average rating, and so on, with the lowest-performing Judge on that metric receiving one point. CWN then added each Judge’s point total to get his or her final score, out of a total possible score of 96. The chart is therefore a ranking of how procedurally fair Court Watch NOLA volunteers perceived the twelve trial court Judges of Orleans Parish Criminal District Court to be during the first half of 2014.
³ Am. Bar Ass’n, Black Letter Guidelines on Judicial Accountability at 5-5.1 (Feb. 2005); see Center for Court Innovation and National Judicial College, Enhancing Procedural Fairness: Draft Menu of Best Practices (“Court session should begin promptly at the time scheduled to demonstrate respect of defendants’ time. You can thank the audience members for being on time to show mutual respect. If court does not start on time, court staff may [/] should update audience members of when they expect court to start.”).
⁴ Court Watch NOLA emphasizes that its volunteers record the time the Judge takes the bench and not the time the Judge may arrive in court. The Chief Judge, in particular, has additional administrative duties to which he or she must attend. Each section’s subpoena start time, listed next to the Judge’s name, was provided by the Judicial Administrator’s office for 2013, and sections A, C, F, H & K separately confirmed the accuracy of their respective subpoena times.
5 Judge Flemings-Davillier asked that we print the following response to this narrative observation: “Thank you for a copy of the draft of the Court Watch NOLA 2103 Report. I appreciate the opportunity to speak with you candidly about some of the substance of the report. As discussed, I wanted to have the opportunity to review the report in more detail and to respond to and/or to comment on observations noted in the report. I appreciate that Court Watch recognized and noted that Section B. has a very large docket, which I inherited upon taking the Bench in 2013. I also appreciate Court Watch’s efforts to discuss various issues in terms of evaluating all of the different parties that play a role in the criminal justice system and the myriad of reasons that may impact the Court’s overall operation and case management. Nevertheless, I think that it is worth responding to and commenting on the following:
SECTION “B” NARRATIVE OBSERVATIONS – While I note that the first three observations were positive, the fourth observation stated that I took the bench 45 minutes late, keeping those in court waiting and did not provide any reason for my delay, that a good deal of chatting went on, the courtroom was not well controlled, most matters were handled at sidebar and I did not give written reasons for my rulings.
As discussed during our conversation, comments like these are difficult to address given the lack of information as to the date on which the comment was made; the absence of information regarding the person making the observation and that person’s level of understanding of the legal system and experience in a courtroom setting; the lack of information regarding how long that person actually observed the court proceedings that day, among other factors that may have been present. This type of “observation” creates such a negative depiction of the courtroom proceedings that it seems counterproductive, especially in light of the absence of the context in which the court proceedings took place and given that the observation is grossly contrary to the normal courtroom decorum in Section B.
Nevertheless, I reviewed my docket from the date on which you advised the observation was made (November 6, 2013) and determined that I handled approximately 30 matters that day, which included several arraignments; bond hearings; a contradictory hearing on a motion to set aside a bond forfeiture (which was somewhat contentious); several plea agreements, requiring discussion of the terms of the respective agreements (one involving placement of a defendant in the Court’s Domestic Violence Monitoring Program – requiring the defendant to be screened (briefly) by a case manager in court); several Rule to Show Cause/Revocation hearings (requiring extensive discussions with counsel for the State and defense and the probation officers - all of which took some time to determine the most productive disposition of each case); and pre-trials on several serious cases, involving such matters as Attempted 1st Degree Murder, Attempted 2nd Degree Murder and Aggravated Battery. Sometimes in-chamber conferences are necessary for various reasons, including the small court room setting; however, I do believe that I had met with counsel in chambers that morning, and thus, was at court, conducting court business well before taking the bench, as is usual given the physical courtroom setting. So suffice it to say, there were a number of matters handled that day with a variety of attorneys for the State (more ADA’s were in court that day than just the two assigned to Section B.), defendants, various parties, probation officers and others in court. Nevertheless, looking at the docket, it appears to have been a productive day. I cannot help the way that the one person who was in court that day perceived the operations, but I wholeheartedly disagree with the picture of chaos created by that observation and unfortunately cannot provide more information given the absence of information concerning what proceedings that person observed.
I conduct myself in a professional manner and require that the lawyers, witnesses and defendants do the same. During my first year at Criminal District Court, many lawyers and other parties have taken it upon themselves to note how impressed they have been with the professional courtroom decorum and the tone of the court. Nevertheless, as can happen in any courtroom setting, the noise level may rise, depending on the number of people in the courtroom (I note that the Section B. courtroom is extremely small); attorneys may need the opportunity to speak with victims, defendants, families and others about cases (and it is not always feasible to do so in the hall outside of the courtroom); or a defendant or another person (a victim, family, etc…) may get emotional at times. In addition, there is only one entrance and exit in and out of Section B., which requires all attorneys, defendants (including those in custody), victims, witnesses, doctors, counselors, deputies, staff, and other parties to enter and exit through the same door. All of these factors make it difficult to control the noise level at all times. But, even with the current courtroom setting (of which the Report makes mention), I have maintained control over the courtroom and the proceedings.
In addition, given the amount of people in court on any given day, conferences may be necessary to discuss sensitive, private and/or confidential issues. All conferences are conducted with counsel for the State (representing the interests of the citizens) and counsel for the defendant(s). I have made it a practice that after such conferences, counsel goes on record as necessary to place important dates and information on the record. In addition, I always give reasons for my rulings where a reason is warranted, whether I grant a continuance, rule on a motion and/or address some issue raised by counsel. In fact, I often times issue a per curium/written reasons for judgment on complex cases.
While the Assistant District Attorneys typically call the cases on the docket, I take great care to ensure that I have ultimate control over the docket, taking note of defendants, parties and attorneys who are present and those who are not, in which case, I make every effort to locate those attorneys and/or probation officers who are not present and/or to communicate with Orleans Parish Prison to get inmates to court as soon as possible (even though I may be told that an inmate cannot be transported to court for some reason in which case I have worked to get those inmates to court nonetheless) so as to avoid delaying or continuing a case to another date. I have found that my interactive involvement in moving the case docket and calling on lawyers and others to be in court has allowed us to handle matters on the scheduled date, as opposed to delaying cases merely due to absences.
Over the past year and 3 months that I have served on the Criminal District Court Bench, I have thoroughly enjoyed my work as a Judge. I have worked extremely hard to address those cases that have been pending on the docket for some time and to establish immediate control over those cases that have been filed since I took the Bench. Much of my work as a Judge takes place on the bench in court, but a lot of work also takes place off the bench, reviewing cases, motions, legal research, drafting judgments, and other judicial documents. Given my caseload (of which I was fully aware when I ran for the position), I spend many days, evenings and nights working to ensure that I am fully prepared for the large amount of cases I handle daily.
In addition, when I took the Bench in 2013, I agreed to take the Drug Court docket that was previously assigned to Section B. I enjoy working on alternatives to incarceration and rehabilitative programs that improve the lives of others and ultimately improve the quality of life for our community. After becoming a “Drug Court Judge,” I volunteered, along with Judge Karen Herman, to serve as an Administrative Judge over “Court Intervention Services” (“CIS”), which includes Drug Court, Mental Health Court and the Domestic Violence (DV) Monitoring program. In that capacity, Judge Herman and I have spent countless hours working on those programs; meeting with supervisors, case managers and counselors; and working on program funding and sustainability (often requiring that we meet at Court at 8 am in the morning and late during the day, as well as work at night on various matters). Drug Court and Mental Health Court, as well as the DV program, have proved very successful for many clients, as evidenced quarterly by those who graduate from the programs or complete the requirements in the case of the DV program. Other Judges are also involved in rehabilitative programs, which require a lot of time and have proved successful to those clients. These successful programs ultimately positively impact the overall functioning and purpose of the Court and the criminal justice system in that they reduce recidivism, reduce court costs and costs of incarceration, among so many other benefits and invaluable gains for the client and community. Without the support and meaningful substantive hard work of the Judges, along with the program staff, such programs would not exists.
Finally, I note that serving as a judge also requires a significant amount of time addressing court management and operations, personnel matters, budgetary and funding matters, and building maintenance issues, as well as coordination of various matters with our local, state and federal partners, including the Clerk of Court, the Sheriff’s Office, the City of New Orleans and the City Council, State representatives, the Department of Public Safety and Corrections, and many other community and civic organizations. Many of these functions are handled by the Judges via committees and/or individually. Such work is a vital part of managing and operating a productive and efficient court system.
In closing, I appreciate Court Watch’s recognition of the good work and improvements by the Judges noted in the report and it is my understanding that Court Watch will be changing the manner in which it provides information in its report. However, I suggest that for purposes of the current report, several of the comments may circumvent Court Watch’s ultimate intent in drafting the report. Notwithstanding, I remain fully committed to ensuring that Criminal District Court operates in a fair, efficient and productive manner, and I know that my colleagues share the same goals.
Thank you for your time and consideration.”