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Jefferson District Court judges fare well in poll of local attorneys

Most in district court receive good marks


While the overall satisfaction scores for Jefferson District Court judges decreased slightly from two years ago, as rated by lawyers who practice before them, their numbers as a group remained high, according to the most recent Louisville Bar Association survey.

All but three of Jefferson County's 17 district judges received good marks - above 75 percent favorable ratings on overall performance - with Donald Armstrong leading the way at 97 percent.

Armstrong said he was "very pleased and honored" with the poll, joking that the attorneys "took pity on me and rated me highly."

Judge Sandra McLaughlin, who took the bench in January 2011, received the lowest overall score, with a 41 percent general satisfaction rating, followed by Annette Karem at 55 percent and Katie King at 72 percent.

McLaughlin, a former prosecutor, said that historically, new judges who come from a prosecutorial background are judged by their prior legal experience.

"I was a very tough prosecutor and clearly, these results reflect that the criminal defense bar hasn't forgotten that," she said. "It was my responsibility on day one to set aside those past contentious relations with the defense bar and I am confident going forward I will be judged on my actual judicial qualifications."

Karem also noted she was a prosecutor and the defense bar was likely not happy with her decision to sentence an attorney last year to six months in jail for contempt for refusing to divulge a client's name. She also said it was "telling" that her performance in civil cases came back negative before she had even been on the bench in civil court.

King said she was pleased that her numbers went up - from 69 percent in 2009 - and would "continue to do my best to serve my community."

Of the 10 judges who were also rated in the bar poll two years ago, seven fared worse in the most recent poll, with Judge Michelle Stengel falling the farthest, from a 91 percent favorable rating in 2009 to 77 percent last year. Karem fell 10 points.

Stengel did not respond to phone messages left at her office.

The group's overall performance as a whole fell from a rating of more than 86 percent to 83 percent.

However, Jim Lungar with Thoroughbred Research Group, which assists in the review, said the total numbers were not down by a statistically significant amount and likely do not reflect a change of attitude toward the judges.

Chief Jefferson District Judge Angela McCormick Bisig also said the drop didn't appear significant, but may have had something to do with frustration over the massive reorganization of district court last year, the first major changes in the court system in three decades.

"In general, though, the numbers are fairly high," she said, specifically pointing out how well the new judges were rated.

Besides McLaughlin, the seven new district judges were highly rated, with David Holton and Jennifer Wilcox leading the way, at 96 percent and 95 percent general satisfaction scores, respectively.

The poll asked Louisville lawyers to rate the judges on their temperament and integrity, their management of cases and their legal ability, as well as how they handle both civil and criminal cases. Participants also were asked to grade the judges on their overall performance.

Of the 4,200 members of the Kentucky bar practicing in Jefferson County, 581 asked to fill out an evaluation. Of those, 352 returned completed surveys. And of those, only a few hundred, at most, rated judges.

Critics have said the poll is mostly a popularity contest, but the bar association and Thoroughbred Research Group say the poll is valid, noting that it asks that only lawyers with significant contact with a judge fill out a survey.

Of the eight senior status judges working in district court, only Paula Fitzgerald and William Ryan Jr. fared poorly, with 28 percent and 59 percent general satisfaction scores, respectively.

A complete list of results is available at the Louisville Bar Association's website, www.loubar.org.