LOUISVILLE, KY (WAVE) - They're elected to uphold the law, but who holds judges accountable when it comes to showing up for work? Judges said just because they aren't in the court room does not mean they weren't working.
But when Jefferson County District Court surveyed attorney's earlier this year, the results showed frustration over judges who weren't in their courtrooms enough. In addition, there are virtually no rules about how much vacation and sick time Jefferson county judges take - and Kentucky does not have system to document the time they are gone.
But pinning down just how much vacation Jefferson County District Court judges get is harder than you might think. The WAVE 3 Troubleshooter Department studied thousands of pages of case dockets from seven different court rooms in 2011. Using computer log ins, Troubleshooter Eric Flack attempted to track how many days the judges assigned to those courtrooms were not on the bench in their assigned courtrooms.
Kentucky is one of 30 states that does not have vacation or sick time policies for judges. Leigh Anne Hiatt, spokesperson for the Administrative Office of the Courts in Frankfort, said state judges do have guidelines as laid out by the American Bar Association.
The ABA suggests judges get no less than 10 holidays a year. Jefferson County judges get 12.5 days. The ABA also recommends judges take up to 30 vacation days per year and no less than 12 sick days. That's roughly 42 days, or 8 weeks, in all.
Case dockets in the court rooms we studied showed most of the judges weren't in court between 25 to 35 days last year. That's about five to seven weeks of work days which is well within those ABA guidelines.
But court dockets also revealed judge Katie King was not logged into the computer in her courtroom on 59 different days. King said she was in other court rooms six of those days and that her security card shows she was in the courthouse on six other days. That leaves 47 days, more than nine weeks, that computer log ins showed Judge King not in her court.
Judge King said in no way did she fail to perform her judicial responsibilities in 2011, which judges say is a lot more than just hearing cases on the bench. Judge King also said she missed 13 of the days we marked her absent due to neck and back injuries suffered in a car accident and was still in so much pain when she returned to the bench she conducted court standing up.
Judge King never had to take a leave of absence when she was out with her injuries because Kentucky judges are elected officials and not required to take family medical leave when they cannot work like other state employees.
What that means for Judge Erica Lee Williams is that she did not have to take a pay cut when she was put on bed rest in 2011 by her doctor because of a high risk pregnancy. Time off that the doctor said was essential to preserve the life of Judge Williams and her daughter who was eventually born nine weeks premature.
Judge Williams missed court for nearly five months, working from home as much as possible, she said, and collecting her full district court judge salary of $112,668 a year.
We wanted to talk with Chief District Court Judge Angela Bisig about all this but she declined our request for an on camera interview after receiving the list of questions we wanted to discuss.
"I do not believe it is appropriate for me to comment about the attendance of judicial colleagues," Judge Bisig wrote in an email. "In addition, the Chief Judge has no disciplinary authority over other Judges, and I was not Chief Judge during the time period you have named in your request."
Instead, Judge Bisig referred us to a statement issued by the Administrative Office of the Courts.
"As elected officials, they are personally responsible for their own attendance and how they perform in carrying out the duties of their office, which encompass far more than attendance on a primary assigned court docket," Leigh Anne Hiatt wrote. "Judges do not report to nor are they supervised by any boss, board or organization. They answer only to the voters in their home counties. This is true for all elected officials in Kentucky."
In response to questions about their attendance records the judges also hired an attorney and now he's the one doing the talking.
Thomas Clay wrote "any attempt to characterize these judges attendance in the performance of their duties as somehow deficient would be false and misleading."
Clay said the judges decision not to be interviewed should not be taken as an admission of guilt.
"They are in no way seeking to stifle Mr. Flack or WAVE 3's inquiry into the matter of their attendance. They welcome any opportunity to familiarize the public with the breadth and scope of their responsibilities and duties they perform while they may not be sitting in their assigned divisions."
Judges said even when they are not in their courtroom there is never an empty chair and there is always someone presiding over court in their place so justice is served. Judges say their other duties, including overnight signing search warrants and setting bonds, training and serving on community leadership boards are a vital part of what they do. Even if they don't do it, in court.
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