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King of the court
D.C.ís chief judge hopes to Ďmake things...betterí
(Published September 22, 2003)

By GINA PONCE
Staff Writer

Before receiving a juris doctor degree at Georgetown University Law Center, Chief Judge Rufus G. King III of D.C. Superior Court said he was "not particularly focused" on where his life was heading.

It was during his time attending law school that King said he decided that he wanted to be a judge.

"To want to become a judge was a no-brainer," King said. "Iíve done a number of projects and worked with the administration and thought I might have something to contribute as chief judge if I ever had the opportunity."

King, 61, grew up in suburban Maryland and obtained a bachelorís degree in biology from Princeton University. He became involved in the court system long before becoming a judge, serving as a clerk and a lawyer and also on several committees of the D.C. Bar Association.

In 1984 King was appointed to the D.C. bench by former president Ronald Reagan and continued his career as a judge in all divisions of the court, except the Probate and Tax Division. Kingís longest tenure began in the Civil Division in 1990 and ended in 1998 after he became presiding judge.

King said he feels that his "long period of apprenticeship" helped to prepare him for the position he is in now. He was appointed by Congress to be chief judge in 2000 and now presides over 58 judges in the Superior Court, which is the trial court of general jurisdiction for the District.

As chief judge, King said he is responsible for all the administrative oversight, assigning all the judges and working with Congress, which funds the court, on budgetary issues. He calls the budget an "ongoing area of responsibility and focus." King is one of five judges who work on the Joint Committee for Judicial Administration, which handles the budget for Superior Court and the D.C. Court of Appeals.

Nicholas McConnell, president of the Bar Association of the District of Columbia, said he believes King is doing the best he can with resources that are not always adequate for the judicial system.

He calls King "a very conscientious, capable and effective administrator of the court. I know heís committed to making that court the best court it can possibly be," McConnell said.

In his application to become chief judge, King wrote, "The chief judgeís primary duty is to lead an effective administration of the court and to develop and maintain good working relations with authorities in Congress and at OMB [Office of Management and Budget] as well as with the mayor and the city council.ÖWithin the court, the chief judge must be able to work cooperatively with each of the judges and senior staff and must be accessible to all court personnel. The chief should represent the court in the community and encourage other judges and staff to take active roles in the community both inside and outside of the legal profession."

King was working on several projects before coming into his current job, including the Integrated Justice Information System, which he is still working on and said will change the way information is used in the court system. He also became interested in renovation plans for different parts of the court.

"The biggest challenge [of this position] has been working with the Hill to bring the Family Court legislation to a successful conclusion," King said.

The Family Division was created by passage of the federal Family Court Act of 2001. The so-called "Family Court" handles matters of juvenile delinquency, abuse and neglect, divorce, custody, adoption, child support, mental health and retardation, and the marriage bureau.

William Lawler, a member of the Bar Association of the District of Columbia, said he thinks the chief judge is doing an excellent job and has paid a lot of attention to the structures of the court.

"The morale is up," Lawler said. "[King] has been exceptionally strong in his outreach to the legal community."

Despite being relatively happy about the way the D.C. courts are functioning, King said improvements are still needed. The effectiveness of the new Family Court will need to be evaluated after its initial break-in period, the integrated information system needs to be extended to all court divisions and the Criminal Division needs to be scrutinized jointly by city leaders and court officials, he said.

"Thereís never a time when there arenít things that canít take improvement," he noted.

The most rewarding thing about his job, King said, "is the ability to really influence changes for the better and have an impact on how the court runs. Weíre in a building process, and there are opportunities across the entire court system to make things run a little better."

King said that when it comes to the leadership of the court, his philosophy is that "the court ought to be open, responsive and responsible in dealing with everyone who comes before it. Judges ought to be able to hear cases with as few distractions as possible."

King referred to his current position in the Superior Court as the high point of his career and said that "being a judge in [D.C.] is one of the greatest opportunities in the world." He said he has no plans for retiring anytime soon and does not ever see a time when he would not want to hear cases.

"Iím happy where I am, and I think itís going well," King said. "Assuming [the court] will have me, I want to be chief judge long enough to finish some of these important projects. Iíve been very fortunate throughout my tenure."

Copyright 2003, The Common Denominator