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At Judicial Luncheon, D.C. Courts and D.C. Bar Leaders Celebrate Strong Partnership

April 26, 2024

By John Murph

Judicial Luncheon

On April 25, the District of Columbia bench and bar came together at the D.C. Bar headquarters for the 2024 Judicial Leadership Luncheon. Themed “Next Generation of the D.C. Bar: Preparing for the Future,” the event highlighted some of the challenges the D.C. Bar, the D.C. Bar Pro Bono Center, and the D.C. Courts are facing as well as some their respective accomplishments.

“I understand that not every jurisdiction has the kind of partnership that we enjoy in the District of Columbia,” D.C. Bar President Charles Lowery Jr. said in his opening remarks. “We are the envy of many states around the country. That’s why it’s so important that we honor you — our exceptional judiciary — and that we recognize the strength of our collaborative relationship.”

Fastest Growing Bar

The D.C. Bar remains the fastest growing unified bar in the country, with members in all 50 states and in 85 counties around the world. The largest number of international Bar members reside in South Korea.

Spagnoletti“That’s largely due to the UBE [Uniform Bar Examination]. We grow at a rate of about 4,500 new members every year,” Spagnoletti said. “But considering the fact that we have resignations and retirements, we want to put a net gain of between 1,000 and 2,000 lawyers every year. So, we are growing very quickly.”

The D.C. Bar is also financially strong, Spagnoletti said, with its license fees in the bottom third of all mandatory integrated bars in the United States. “We have been able to operate within budget, oftentimes returning a surplus, and maintain clean audits for six consecutive years,” he added.

Among the Bar’s accomplishments this fiscal year was the adoption of comprehensive amendments to the Rules Governing the District of Columbia Bar by the D.C. Court of Appeals, marking the first time the Rules have been updated since the Bar’s founding more than 50 years ago. “With new Bylaws and Rules, the D.C. Bar is ready to take on the future,” Spagnoletti said.

That future, according to Spagnoletti, includes embracing new technology and expanding services to Bar members and the D.C. community. On the technology front, he mentioned a revamp of the D.C. Bar’s website, the coming launch of an AI-powered Lawyer Referral Service, and new programming to help members learn more about emerging technologies.

Finally, he spotlighted the D.C. Bar’s newest Communities — one for early career lawyers and another focused on lawyer well-being.

Unmatched Pro Bono Service

Kelli Neptune, executive director of the D.C. Bar Pro Bono Center, reported that since 2020, the Pro Bono Center has helped approximately 10,000 D.C. residents avoid eviction and improve their housing conditions, thanks in part to the Landlord Tenant Legal Assistance Network.

“We hit a milestone earlier this year when the Family Law Assistance Network helped more than 3,400 people with family law matters,” Neptune said. “In the next couple of months, we will launch a new partnership to form the Probate Legal Assistance Network. This network will operate a resource center, located in D.C. Superior Court, to provide brief services and eventually full representation for probate wills, powers of attorney, and advance directives.”

Neptune also talked about how the Pro Bono Center is embracing diversity, inclusion, and equity initiatives through special clinics involving Juneteenth, Memorial Day, and Veterans Day, as well as a collaboration with the D.C. LGBTQ+ Bar Association.

Kelli Neptune“The Pro Bono Center is also harnessing the power of technology and boldly going where no other legal services organization has gone before,” Neptune said, providing attendees a preview of an interactive video the Pro Bono Center produced with YouTopian to assist pro se litigants virtually navigate D.C. Superior Court.

In celebrating some of the Pro Bono Center’s new initiatives, Neptune urged continued support of the legal services community. “As you are aware, the Access to Justice Initiative is at risk of being [partially] defunded. This puts us and many other safety-net organizations at risk,” she said.

After the luncheon, Neptune and Lowery joined other legal services advocates at city hall to testify before the D.C. Council in support of the restoration of access to justice funding that Mayor Muriel Bowser proposed to cut by 67 percent, or more than $21 million, in her fiscal year 2025 budget.

Vacancy Crisis at the Courts

“I love the interactive video, opening the doors and moving the people and the places and the parts around,” said D.C. Court of Appeals Chief Judge Anna Blackburne-Rigsby. “I think it shows how innovative and agile our D.C. Courts have grown and continue to grow.”

Blackburne-Rigsby thanked her executive staff and the D.C. Bar leadership for their continued commitment to DEI efforts. She also mentioned meeting the 2024 class of the John Payton Leadership Academy two days prior.

“[It was good] just to see the richness of our D.C. legal community — the different experience levels, some from private practice, some from government, some from nonprofit organizations — all across the board,” Blackburne-Rigsby said of the academy participants. “That’s the richness that makes our D.C. Bar so dynamic and one of the leading bars in the country. And it’s also what makes our judiciary so strong and dynamic.”

She also mentioned that the D.C. Courts just completed their research on internal racial equity initiatives. “Data helps us. We all have thoughts about how things could be improved,” Blackburne-Rigsby said. “But when you have data, real-world experience, and information [on which] to base policies and practices, we all grow stronger and better.”

Anita Josey-Herring and Anna Blackburne-Rigsby

But the D.C. Courts need more judges to continue their efforts, Blackburne-Rigsby said. The D.C. Court of Appeals has not had a full complement of nine judges (one chief judge and eight associate judges) since 2013. Currently, it has two vacancies. “For a court of nine, that’s about 20 percent in terms of judicial capacity. The Superior Court has about the same percentage rate, with more than 13 vacancies right now,” she added.

“We are excited that we just had two new nominees named by President Biden to the Court of Appeals,” Blackburne-Rigsby said. “So, we’re hopeful. We know there are nominees who have already cleared the committee on the Hill for Superior Court. So, we are working on it.”

D.C. Superior Court Chief Judge Anita Josey-Herring also acknowledged her executive staff. After serving on the Superior Court for nearly 27 years, Josey-Herring is stepping down from the court effective September 30, 2024.

“It’s been a labor of love,” Josey-Herring said. “But part of the reason I have decided to transition to a different phase of life is because there is so much happening in the world. You don’t want to get to do those things when it’s too late. So, hopefully I will have the opportunity to spend time with family and friends and just do whatever I want.”

Josey-Herring also reiterated the D.C. Courts’ struggles with judicial vacancies. Despite these challenges, the presiding judges have led and inspired their colleagues to really tackle enormous caseloads,” Josey-Herring said. “The caseloads are in numbers of 400.”

“All across the courts, everybody is doing what they can. But I do worry about the judges,” Josey-Herring said. “I tell people, ‘Judges are people, too.’ The judges are stretched, and we do need assistance. There’s more than enough work to go around. We can’t do what we do without [the D.C. Bar]. And we thank you so much for all that you support us on, and all that you help us to do all year.”

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