Sean R Delahanty, Judge In The Media

News articles and videos over the years about Judge Delahanty.

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Judge Sean R Delahanty News

Judging the Jefferson District Court judges: ‘There are things that will come out in time’

A collage of photos from Voice-Tribune social pages featuring Judge Angela McCormick Bisig. (Click to see full size.)

(Editor’s note: Several Insider Louisville contributors collected information for this post including Terry Boyd, who did the majority of the writing.)

This is a story with a back story.

We’ve been trying for weeks to get documents related to chronic absenteeism by a small minority of Jefferson District Court judges.

Insiders told Insider Louisville Chief Judge Angela McCormick Bisig is one of a group of female judges frequently absent from the court, a group that includes fellow judges Katie King and Michele Stengel.

Neither King nor Stengel replied to written requests for interviews left with court officials.

Bisig’s and others’ absences caused log jams, confusion and unreasonable workloads for the judges who do show up, say those sources, whose identities we agreed to keep confidential, because they have to appear before these judges, or work beside them as colleagues.

These particular judges are the judges who sort through the jammed criminal dockets in a court system that attorneys say is broken.

How broken?

For two weeks, we tried to find out, and we know now this is a story that will have to be teased out over time.

Judge Angela McCormick Bisig

Multiple sources told Insider Louisville that Bisig, among others, had extensive absences from her courtroom during 2012.

In an interview Thursday, Bisig told Insider Louisville that she hadn’t “taken a single day of vacation this year.”

However, the judge posted photos on her Facebook page of an April trip to New York City.

Bisig then confirmed she took “a long weekend” to go with her sons, adding that “any allegations of excessive absences are not true.”

What’s the truth?

We don’t know.

It’s nearly impossible to document the workings of the court, especially which of the 14 district court judges actually earn their paychecks, about $113,000 annually. (By comparison, Gov. Steve Beshear is paid $127,885 annually.)

Insider Louisville was denied documents, or told documents didn’t exist, only to find out they were public domain.

Beyond the stonewalling, documenting those absences and the additional strains they place on colleagues is difficult, because judges have virtually no obligation beyond personal scruples to show up.

We also came away with the feeling that at least one judge wants to tell the whole story, but can’t quite bring himself to do it.

District Judge Sean Delahanty doesn’t deny some Jefferson County District courtrooms aren’t in disarray.

But Delahanty won’t discuss the situation beyond vague assertions of lack of work ethic by other judges.

This very problem – backed up courts – was the driving force for a reorganization of Jefferson District Court last August.

Before that reorganization, judges were too frequently combining dockets, Delahanty said. That is, one judge doesn’t show up, so another judge has to fold that additional case load into his or her docket.

That’s still going on now, he said.

“The only reasons judges are supposed to combine dockets is vacations or emergencies, and dockets are getting combined way too often for other things,” Delahanty said.

He declined to go into detail.

In a story posted Wednesday on a survey of attorneys concerning the reorganization, Courier-Journal reporter Jason Riley quotes Delahanty as saying, “Some of these judges need to decide if this job interferes with their lifestyle, and I’m not going to say anymore than that.”

Which could be interpreted as a shot at Bisig, who appears frequently at social events featured in the Voice-Tribune newspaper, the Bible of Louisville’s social scene.

Pressed to address the major problems in the courts, Delahanty said, “There are things that will come out in time.”

“What he’s talking about is the lack of accountability the judges have in the way they spend their time,” said attorney Thomas Clay, a partner at Clay Frederick Adams, PLC.

Clay and other attorneys say there are two ways judges hand off their dockets  – by calling a colleague and asking that judge to take their cases, or to call into clerks of the court, who would assign the absent judge’s docket to another judge.

Which is what causes delays and confusion, with judges not in their assigned courtrooms when defendants, witnesses and judges show up for trials and hearings, say our sources.

The system leads to a core of judges picking up the slack including Delahanty, our sources said.

“I defy you to find one attorney anywhere out there who will say my courtroom is broken,” Delahanty said. “You can come to my courtroom anytime you want. Courtroom 204. You come any day, and you can see how a court should be run.”

Asked to talk about the workings of the court or attorneys who don’t run their courtrooms as they should be run, he demurred.

Most elected officials have some mechanism that can be used for accountability whether it be records of votes, legislation or roads paved.

But not judges.

Delahanty told Insider Louisville that he doesn’t believe there are any documents that have data documenting the time judges are in the courtroom or the volume of cases they hear: “We don’t keep a record of attendance.”

“It’s an issue that needs to be addressed. And this is not an issue that just cropped up recently. There have been questions about this topic for years,” Clay said.

Jacob Conway, whose Website Mentors consults with local judicial campaigns and frequent Insider Louisville contributor, said he finds ridiculous allegations that Bisig is a chronic no-show.

Bisig, a former prosecutor, “had a stellar record” in that job, Conway said. “She was one of the people who was always there, later than her job required, longer than any other judges … a workhorse. It’s why no one ever ran against her before.”

Conway says he believes allegations that Bisig and other female judges are devoting less than their all to their positions connect back to possible resentment about more women winning judicial elections.

“A majority of women on the court are women who beat incumbent men,” he said. “These men pointing fingers may be upset about the number of women judges (winning) just in the last few years.

“This is the last ‘old boys club’ left in (Kentucky) politics.”


Two weeks ago, legal insiders told us about a survey of attorneys coming out Tuesday, August 21 that would expose the Jefferson District Court system as a system in chaos.

We went to Bisig to request a copy. Bisig was non-committal, telling us she didn’t know anything about any survey, and wasn’t sure if it would be public record if there was such a document.

We persisted. We asked who paid for the survey, aguing if it was paid with taxpayers’ dollars, it’s a public document. Bisig said she didn’t know.

We asked state officials, including Leigh Anne Hiatt, public information officer for the Administrative Office of the Courts in Frankfort, for the document. Hiatt never followed up on our request.

We asked local employees at the Administrators of the Court, and they claimed the survey didn’t exist, or referred us to state officials.

Wednesday night, Riley posted a story on the survey, a story that stated 53 percent of 164 lawyers responding disagreed or strongly disagreed the reorganization had enhanced administration of justice, with 10 percent agreeing. (Thirty-seven percent had no opinion.)

 From Riley’s story:

Among the biggest problems cited in the survey are that the changes have led to too many combined dockets – those in which a judge took on their own cases as well as the cases of another judge who was either not in court that day or unavailable, backing up the process.

We tried to quantify attendance rates and workloads through the court dockets, which our sources told us judges must sign off on daily.

However, in an email response, Hiatt stated that’s not true (emphasis ours):

You … requested information about when individual judges are on the bench. The court system does not have any one document to provide that information. In addition, docket information does not provide a complete picture of when judges are working. When outside of the courtroom, judges may be preparing paperwork, reviewing probate files, ruling on default judgment motions and taking 24-hour calls regarding bond reviews, search warrants, emergency protective orders and mental inquest warrants. Judges can also have dockets on evenings and weekends. It is also important to note that judges determine their own schedules to meet the needs in their jurisdictions.

More as we solicit these documents.

Hall Of Justice

Massive Jefferson District Court Reorganization Proposed

Chief District Judge Sean Delahanty said recently. “Jefferson County is the only county where judges are not held truly accountable.” … “We have lost sight of our mission statement,” Delahanty said of some of the other plans.
Original Publish Date: May 10th, 2010

Fifteen years after a national study claimed Jefferson District Court was plagued by lazy judges who were accountable to nobody, dumped work on their colleagues and treated litigants like cattle, a makeover may finally be nearing.
A committee of judges, attorneys, prosecutors and court officials has been meeting since December 2008 to propose ways to reorganize district court, potentially effecting thousands of citizens who go there every day to take care of misdemeanors, minor civil cases, traffic cases, juvenile cases, probate, disability and other matters.
Seven proposals have been made, including suggestions such as making sure judges stay with cases until they are concluded, instead of handing them off to other judges when they rotate every six months.
Other suggestions would stagger cases throughout the day so there wouldn’t be a morning crush of people waiting for hours to appear before a judge.
Some judges say changes are long overdue.
“The system we have now hides malingerers,” Chief District Judge Sean Delahanty said recently. “Jefferson County is the only county where judges are not held truly accountable.”
The 17 District Court judges are working toward a recommendation, but some officials say there has been much disagreement during their closed meetings over how much change is needed and how quickly it should be done.
“It’s not easy to get a group of judges to agree on anything,” said senior status Judge Steve Mershon, who is helping mediate.
To illustrate that, the judges can’t even agree on whether they can talk to the media about the re-organization.
Judge Anne Haynie, for example, the co-chairperson of the reorganization committee, said she could not discuss the potential reorganization because of an agreement made by the judges to speak only through Mershon.
But Delahanty, the other co-chairperson, has repeatedly spoken with The Courier-Journal about the process and plans, doggedly pitching a complete overhaul of the system.
And some judges say they have already taken a tentative vote on what they would like to do, but they disagreed when speaking to the newspaper about what exactly was decided by that vote.
It was a bizarre thing and that’s all I want to say about it,” Delahanty said.
The judges are meeting Monday, in part, Mershon said, to try and get everyone on the same page.
“Change is difficult,” said Delahanty, speaking of some judges’ apprehension. “And this would be a culture shock, changing what we’ve been doing for the last 30 years.”
Jefferson District Court starts at 9 a.m., with thousands of people crowding for seats and lining hallways, some waiting hours for their case to be heard – a problem the National Center for State Courts said needed to be addressed 15 years ago in its study of the trouble court system.
“Volume is driving the system to produce dispositions on a fast treadmill with little opportunity for anyone to study the facts, consider alternative … dispositions or explain what is happening to bewildered members of the public,” the report said.
Delahanty said 75 percent of the courthouse traffic is in the morning, with most people arriving at 9 a.m. instead of staggering criminal cases throughout the day.
“There are days this place looks like Grand Central Station,” he said.
Jefferson district judges rotate dockets every six months, handling exclusively either criminal, civil, juvenile or traffic cases, before trading off. When the judges move, they inherit all the cases, meaning a case may be handed off several times.
“There were certain judges you didn’t want to end up behind in the rotation system,” Mershon said of past years when he worked District Court, though he stressed that the current group of judges are much more efficient. “They would just pile cases up.”
Delahanty has proposed a system more like circuit court, where each judge has his own docket of all types of cases – civil, criminal, disability, probate and juvenile – and keeps them until they are concluded.
“The case would belong to you forever, following you wherever you go,” he said.
He also would like to see cases schedule in the morning and afternoon to ease crowding, so “hopefully we eliminate some of the cattle-call nature of the business we do.”
But some judges and reorganization committee members say Delahanty’s plan is too drastic, and perhaps too costly.
“You have to start and work your way into these things,” said Judge Claude Prather, who likes the idea of Delahanty’s plan but doesn’t know if it practical. “You just can’t create havoc all at one time.”
The Jefferson County Attorney’s Office believes ending the rotation system would confuse the public about where they need to go for their case. And county prosecutors, who often specialize in DUI or juvenile cases and spend time in one courtroom, would be spread thin and have to become acquainted with all types of cases that would come up in every courtroom.
Mershon said judges have favored a more moderate plan that would combine criminal dockets – putting traffic, non-support, misdemeanor, warrant and felony cases together on the same dockets – and spread them among more judges, while instituting longer rotations, perhaps for up to two years and possibly staggering dockets.
County Attorney Mike O’Connell and his office has proposed a plan that would create two separate domestic-violence courts for 4,000 to 5,000 cases a year, adding more traffic cases to night and staggering dockets.
Those cases are more complex and dangerous, deserving more time and focus from judges, he said: “It doesn’t need to be mixed in with shoplifting and alcohol intoxication cases.”
Dan Goyette, head of Jefferson County Public Defender’s office, who has proposed a plan similar to Delahanty’s, called the current system a relic from decades past.
“The quality of justice really suffers as a result,” he said.
Jefferson Circuit Court Clerk David Nicholson said his office is not pushing any plan, but when the clerk’s office rated each of the seven plans Delahanty’s ranked the highest.
“We have lost sight of our mission statement,” Delahanty said of some of the other plans.
reposted from original story by Courier-Journal