Friday, August 12, 2005

Benched

Judge fires back at Sheriff Luttrell, who says bailiffs' time report was flawed.

Posted By on Fri, Aug 12, 2005 at 4:00 AM

A report on the amount of time that bailiffs spend in courtrooms produced by Sheriff Mark Luttrell and published in last week's Flyer was flawed, Luttrell said this week.

"I have called in my audit team to come back and look at the data one more time," he said. "We have got a data entry problem. To what extent, we don't know."

Luttrell said several judges complained about the data. He said he has been compiling the data for three years, audits it internally, and then makes it available to Shelby County Commission members and judges, although there is disagreement between him and some judges about the availability of the data as well as its accuracy.

"This is the first time it has been brought to my attention that we have an error," he said. "It wasn't as solid as I have been told."

The report showed the number of hours sheriff's deputies working as bailiffs spent in 38 courtrooms for the first six months of 2005 for court, court preparation, non-sequestered juries, and standby/recess. Luttrell said the error was discovered in the data for some of the General Sessions Criminal courts for June and in Judge Louis Montesi's courtroom in particular.

On Monday, Luttrell said he notified all judges by letter that "inaccuracies have been discovered regarding data input" and that a review was under way.

"Just as soon as I have a full report about this matter, I will again be contacting you and The Memphis Flyer as well to clarify the story," he said in the letter.

Luttrell said in an interview Tuesday that the errors were in reports for March and June and were caused by "a management problem" and court officers not keeping accurate time reports or not submitting them at all. In Montesi's courtroom, corrected figures showed deputies were on duty 6.27 hours a day on average this year, compared to 4.8 hours in the original report, and 6.03 hours in June as opposed to 1.66 hours in the original report. Luttrell said corrected reports for six months should be finished for all courtrooms this week.

The Flyer published the survey as a broad measurement of judicial accountability and courtroom usage, noting seasonal fluctuations in the hours worked by deputies in the summer and between different courtrooms in the same division of courts over a six-month period.

Circuit Court judge Rita Stotts, who is presiding judge for the Chancery, Circuit, and Criminal Court judges, said that bailiff time reports are both an inaccurate and unfair measurement of a judge's work habits.

"Just because a judge is not on the bench does not mean the judge is not working," she said. "It is so unfair to us."

Luttrell said he makes the reports available to judges and meets periodically with Stotts on a court security committee for which they are co-chairmen.

"We have on several occasions referenced these reports to them and periodically released them to them," he said. "I think last year we had a lengthy discussion about court security. We shared the format with them that we follow to account for our officers."

Stotts said judges only see the reports if they ask for them, and they have no input into them and do not verify their accuracy. In any case, she said, they reflect only the time that deputies say they spend in courtrooms, not the time that judges work both on and off the bench. In an interview in her chambers this week, Stotts said she is "inundated" with memos that she must read each week to prepare.

"So much of what we do, particularly on the civil side if we are successful, is perhaps not spending a lot of time on the bench," she said. "There is so much paper generated in civil courts. On Fridays, here in Circuit Court we hear motions. Like a teacher or professor, I've got to spend the time to get ready for that motion, looking at those papers."

After hearing Stotts' criticisms, Luttrell said there is "overlap" between the time that judges work and the deputy time sheets, "but we are not monitoring the judges' workload. I fully understand they have things they deal with in chambers and in meetings with attorneys."

Stotts said she could not say whether all judges are equally industrious.

"There is no way for me to know that because this job is pretty isolated," she said. "I don't know what is going on in any other courtroom for the most part. Due to the nature of the business, you are here and you have no clue what another judge is doing."

Like most professionals, judges do not keep time sheets. The various court clerks' offices provide monthly data about filings and dispositions, but they are not summarized into a single measurement. "Dispositioned cases," for example, are broken down into nine different codes, each with a detailed explanation. A judge who makes it a policy not to continue cases will get high numbers, Stotts said, but she added that there are sometimes good reasons to continue a case. She herself was hearing a case this week that began in 1988 and has been through the Circuit Court of Appeals and federal court.

"It sounds horrific, but there are legitimate reasons why the case has not been resolved before now," she said.

Records compiled by the Circuit Court clerk's office show that there were 10,166 pending cases in Circuit Court alone at the end of 2004.

Stotts said she would be wary of a performance measurement such as a letter grade, standardized test score summary, or "failing" designation that is applied to Tennessee public school systems and individual schools and their students.

"I would hate to see the day when justice becomes a number," she said.

Further complicating accountability measurements is the fact that deputies are sheriff's employees, judges' clerks work for the Circuit Court clerk, law clerks are funded by Shelby County, and Chancery, Circuit, and Criminal Court judges are state employees. The repository of courtroom data is the Administrative Office of the Courts in Nashville, but it will prepare a case management report on a particular judge or class of judges only if someone specifically asks for it and pays the costs of producing it.

"Everybody is basically marching to somebody else's drumbeat," Stotts said.

All elected judges will run for reelection in 2006, and, if form holds, most will have at least one opponent. Judges in the state courts and General Sessions courts serve eight-year terms and are currently paid $118,548 a year. Stotts said she will rely on word of mouth, civic activities, speeches, and endorsements to make her own case to voters but will probably not use data from the Circuit clerk's office or the results of the upcoming judicial survey by the Memphis Bar Association, which polls approximately 600 attorneys who practice in the courts. She believes the survey sample can be skewed.

"We don't sit here as judges and have some kind of check mark for lawyers," she said. "I don't have a list of lawyers, where every time they come in I am keeping up with whether he was late or unprepared. Everything is on a case-by-case basis, but apparently we are not being given that same kind of leeway."

She said litigants and their families should have input on judicial ratings. "Is anybody capturing the opinion of the people who've been in the courtroom?" she asked.

No one has found a way to systematically survey those people.

"The sheriff has a publicist," Stotts said. "If he goes to a nursing home or something, he has paid people to make him look good. We don't have that luxury."

The sheriff's department, with a budget of $130 million and 2,035 employees, has a public-affairs spokesman. Luttrell declined comment on the charge.

Luttrell, who will also be on the ballot in 2006 if he seeks reelection, said the time reports help him deploy deputies to courtrooms efficiently. He has unsuccessfully lobbied the Shelby County Commission to allow him to use part-time retired deputies as bailiffs. Some judges, citing attacks in courtrooms in other cities, think that would compromise safety.

"I don't think this issue has been a problem for other sheriffs," said Stotts. "It seems to be an issue of priorities. Apparently, other sheriffs have felt that their statutory duty to provide security in court was a high priority."

Luttrell said budget tightening has forced him to address "a number of issues that were not issues with previous sheriffs."

Stotts said performance measurements and numerical ratings which are now used for schools, colleges, and even "livable cities" may be "the wave of the future," but she still thinks they have problems for judges whose approach is "one litigant at a time."

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