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Council for Court Excellence Meet the Next Chief Judge Candidates Forum Recap

By Delphine Gareau

On Thursday, June 13, 2024, the Council for Court Excellence (CCE) organized a candidate forum for the judges, Hon. Marisa Demeo and Hon. Milton Lee, Jr., who are running for the position of chief judge. The Independent D.C. The Judicial Nomination Commission will ultimately designate the chief judge from among the two applicants. The forum provided an excellent opportunity for members of the bar and the broader community to understand the visions and priorities the Chief Judge candidates have for the Superior Court. This understanding helped inform public comment submissions to the D.C. Judicial Nomination Commission. The candidate forum was moderated by Karen Evans of The Cochran Firm and a member of the Council for Court Excellence Executive Committee. 

Judge Demeo has lived in DC for the last 30 years. She has dedicated the past 36 years to serving the public interest. Judge Demeo began her career as a paralegal in the Civil Rights Division of the Department of Justice. After law school, she continued her work with the Department of Justice, focusing on voting rights. Judge Demeo has also worked with the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund’s policy office, served as an Assistant U.S. Attorney, and worked as an adjunct professor. Since 2007, she has been a Superior Court Judge for the District of Columbia.

“As a judge on the Superior Court I have always looked for ways that I could promote access to justice, more public confidence in the Courts, racial equity, and cultural confidence. My interest in serving as the chief judge is deeply rooted in my commitment to our community. I wish to pursue this passion to serve the DC residents and doing so with judges, administrators, and staff so that we can fulfill the mission of the Court: open to all, trusted by all, and justice for all.” 

Please see Judge Demeo’s full biography and statement of interest for the Chief judge role on the Judicial Nomination Commission website.

Judge Lee was born and educated in the District of Columbia. He began his legal career working for the Public Defender Service of the District of Columbia. Judge Lee has taught as a professor at Georgetown University and Howard College and currently teaches at the University of the District of Columbia. He has spent 26 years in the Superior Court serving the DC community and the greater justice system as a hearing commissioner, magistrate judge, an associate judge, and a presiding judge. 

“I have a career that demonstrates the commitment and dedication to the cause of justice, the Court, and the citizens of this great city. I’ve worked across this entire justice landscape. I’ve collaborated with partners and I’ve made every effort to engage with the community so that we can get a better sense of how the justice we dispense impacts the people that we serve.” 

Please see Judge Lee’s full biography and statement of interest for the Chief judge role on the Judicial Nomination Commission website.

The follow topics and questions were discussed by the two candidates: 

  1. How do you plan to deal with significant resource limitations including the high number of judicial vacancies, shortage of court appointed attorneys, and several proposed budget cuts amid increasingly high demands on our court system?
  2. What forms of community engagement are going to be prioritized white you are chief, for example, do you think the Court’s leadership should be coming into the community if so how will you do that in practice, if not, what are the other ways you can both share with and receive important information from residents or key court partners and stakeholders? 
  3. Many important court functions involve external stakeholders, for example, legal service organizations provide resource centers for unrepresented parties in a few divisions. Lawyers and bar entities work with judicial officers and the Court staff to draft updated court rules. Volunteer guardians add light and provide legal and factual insights in domestic relation cases. The criminal division requires close and frequent engagement with the US attorney CJA’s and the public defender service to run effectively. These are just some examples of court collaborators. How will you work with these groups as well as the DC Council and the Mayor to ensure the effective administration of justice at the DC Superior Court?
  4. Much of the work around reforming court processes or rules happen at the division level as opposed to court wide. For example, a generally applicable reform or strategy might be pursued in one area of the Court, but not in another. What is your philosophy on the Court change process? Should changes happen in divisions under the guidance of the presiding judges or would you approach court-wide planning that would institute common approaches more broadly? If yes, how would you accomplish that as a practical matter? 
  5. DC juries do not currently reflect the demographics of our community. For the past two years the group of people coming to the Superior Court after being summoned for petit jury service have been approximately 30% black people in a city that is 45% black. Do you see this as a problem and what would you propose should be done about it? 
  6. The Superior Court has high levels of pro se or unrepresented litigants in most divisions. The rates range between 97% of plaintiffs in small estate matters and between 85-97% of respondents in family court, fraternity and child support, and landlord and tenant matters. Of course it will always be a goal to secure as much legal representation as possible for these litigants but until we have full Civil Gideon, resources will not likely be adequate to meet the current need. What changes, and those changes within the courts control are needed to allow us to better serve the thousands of unrepresented litigants who access the Court? Put another way, what ideas, scheduling or otherwise, do you have about how to make improvements in high volume calendars that regularly see a high proportion of unrepresented litigants? 
  7. Given the financial crisis the public defender service is currently experiencing, how will you support the Criminal Justice Act or CJA panel attorneys as they are called upon to assist the Court during this time? How can the Court help to address the disparity in training, support, resources, and caseload sizes, what ideas do you have regarding the billable cap and hourly rates for CJAs? 
  8. What improvements would you propose to ensure that the Court is more accessible to limited English proficient people and to people with disabilities?  
  9. We know that many people that appear in the Superior Court as defendants, plaintiffs, victims, and witnesses have significant trauma histories. Unfortunately experiences that bring them to court may be directly related to thos traumas or can exacerbate them. How have you demonstrated a trauma informed approach in the courtroom? What will you do to ensure that judges receive the care and support that they need to maintain a sense of compassion and to create a trauma-informed atmosphere in their courtrooms? And what other types of training would benefit our courts, judges and staff? 
  10. Last month, CCE released a report commissioned by the office of the DC auditor on cross over youth, that is youth who have had cases in both the Juvenile and child welfare systems sometimes simultaneously and sometimes asynchronously. Records showed that there were many more crossover youth than are currently being counted or treated as a special population by the district’s government. As you both know, a 2001 law and a 2009 order calls for an implementation of the one family one judge principle to the extent practical, feasible, and lawful. What steps as chief judge would you take to ensure that the family court is following the one family one judge rule to the greatest extent possible? How, as chief judge, would you promote the different court divisions, including the family court and the social services division and relevant agencies, participation,and leadership in efforts to create a more unified and collaborative approach to crossover youth in the district?

In his concluding statement, Judge Lee emphasized that there is a lot of work to be done in the Superior Court, but highlighted that progress is achievable through the development and expansion of stakeholder relationships, community engagement, and moving beyond discussion and into action. Judge Demeo concluded by reaffirming her passion to foster a more just society, creating a collegial environment in the Superior Court, seeking out input to ensure all voices are heard, and making the Court accessible by removing barriers to understanding. 

In honor of her retirement, we extend our sincere thanks to the Hon. Chief Judge Anita Josey-Herring for her dedicated service and invaluable contributions to the justice system. 

See how the candidates responded to these important questions on the CCE’s Youtube page! You can access a recording of the full event here

Cosponsors of the event:

  • ACLU of DC
  • Asian Pacific American Bar Association for the Greater Washington, DC Area
  • Bar Association of the District of Columbia
  • DC Access to Justice Commission
  • DC Appleseed Center for Law & Justice 
  • DC Consortium of Legal Service Providers 
  • Greater Washington Area Chapter, Women Lawyers Division, National Bar Association 
  • Hispanic Bar Association of the District of Columbia
  • UDC David A. Clarke School of Law
  • Washington Bar Association
  • Washington Council of Lawyers
  • Women’s Bar Association of the District of Columbia

Delphine Gareau is Washington Council of Lawyer’s 2024 Summer Intern and a rising junior at Boston College.

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