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COUNCIL OF THE DISTRICT OF COLUMBIA

SUBCOMMITTEE ON HUMAN RIGHTS,
LATINO, ASIAN AND PACIFIC ISLANDER AFFAIRS
AND PROPERTY MANAGEMENT

FY 2003 PERFORMANCE OVERSIGHT HEARING
THE COMMISSION ON HUMAN RIGHTS

February 20, 2004


CHAIRMAN GRAHAM AND MEMBERS OF THE SUBCOMMITTEE ON HUMAN RIGHTS, LATINO AFFAIRS, ASIAN AND PACIFIC ISLANDERS, AND PROPERTY MANAGEMENT:

MY NAME IS DEBORAH WOOD DORSEY, AND I AM CHAIR OF THE COMMISSION ON HUMAN RIGHTS. I GREATLY APPRECIATE THE OPPORTUNITY TO APPEAR BEFORE YOU TODAY TO DISCUSS THE SUCCESSFUL WORK OF THE COMMISSION, ITS STRENGTHS, AND ITS CHALLENGES. AND, I AM VERY PLEASED TO REPORT THAT THE COMMISSION IS MEETING ITS PUBLIC MANDATE TO EFFICIENTLY ADJUDICATE COMPLAINTS OF UNLAWFUL DISCRIMINATION. THE COMMISSION ON HUMAN RIGHTS IS AN INDEPENDENT AGENCY, RELATED TO THE OFFICE OF HUMAN RIGHTS. IT IS MADE UP OF FIFTEEN CIVIC-MINDED RESIDENTS OF THE DISTRICT WHO VOLUNTEER THEIR TIME TO DO THE IMPORTANT WORK OF UPHOLDING THE "D.C. HUMAN RIGHTS ACT OF 1977." THE PRIMARY FUNCTION OF THE COMMISSION IS TO ADJUDICATE PRIVATE COMPLAINTS CERTIFIED TO IT BY THE OFFICE OF HUMAN RIGHTS FOLLOWING A DETERMINATION OF PROBABLE CAUSEóMEANING THE LIKELIHOOD OF DISCRIMINATION WAS FOUND FOLLOWING AN EXTENSIVE INVESTIGATION AND UNSUCCESSFUL ATTEMPTS AT CONCILIATION. THESE CASES ARE GROUNDED IN THE SIXTEEN PLUS PROTECTED CATEGORIES SET FORTH IN THE HUMAN RIGHTS ACT. WHILE THE D.C. MUNICIPAL REGULATIONS ("Rules of Procedure for Contested Cases," 4 DCMR Section 400 et seq. (1995) say that A hearing may be Conducted by the hearing examiner or a panel of Commissioners, typically it is the hearing examiners who hear the cases. The exception is the VERY RARE occasion when A HEARING EXAMINER AND A PANEL OF cOMMISSIONERS HEAR CASES WHERE THE ISSUES ARE COMPLEX OR ARE "HIGH PROFILE." Normally, CASES ARE simple AND straight forward, and Can be adjudicated by ONLY one hearing examiner. BECAUSE THE COMMISSIONíS WORK IS DE NOVO, THE COMPLAINANT AND RESPONDENT ENGAGE IN FULL DISCOVERY WITH THE USUAL TIME LIMITS FOR FILING PLEADINGS AND MOTIONS ACCORDING TO THE D.C. CODE AND CONSISTENT WITH THE RULES OF CIVIL PROCEDURE. THE HEARING EXAMINERS DOCKET THE COMPLAINTS, HEAR THEM, AND ISSUE A "PROPOSED DECISION AND ORDER." COMMISSIONERS ARE ASSIGNED TO THREE-MEMBER TRIBUNALS THAT DETERMINE WHETHER TO ACCEPT, MODIFY OR REJECT THE HEARING EXAMINERíS PROPOSED DECISION and ORDER. UPON A THOROUGH REVIEW OF the HEARING TRANSCRIPT, THE TRIBUNALS MEET IN CLOSED SESSION TO ENTER THE FINAL ORDER AND AWARD DAMAGES OR INJUNCTIVE RELIEF, AS APPROPRIATE. THE TRIBUNAL SYSTEM IS VERY EFFICIENT, MR. CHAIRMAN, EXPEDITING A FINAL DECISION THAT IS FAIR TO BOTH THE COMPLAINANT AND THE RESPONDENT. fOR INSTANCE, ONLY ONE COMMISSIONER RENDERING A FINAL DECISION COULD DO SO ARBITRARILY, WHILE TWO COMMISSIONERS COULD EASILY REACH A DEADLOCK AND CREATE A BOTTLENECK in the ADJUDICATORY SYSTEM. TRIBUNALS OF THREE COMMISSIONERS WORK WELL TO ACHIEVE A MAJORITY VOTE ON THE FINAL DECISION, LEADING TO A FAIR OUTCOME TO BOTH PARTIES AND SPEEDILY MOVING THE PROCESS FORWARD. THROUGHOUT THE COURSE OF ANY GIVEN YEAR, THERE IS AN AVERAGE OF 25 COMPLAINTS ON THE COMMISSIONíS DOCKET. TYPICALLY, THEY ARE ON THE COMMISSIONíS DOCKET FOR 12 TO 16 MONTHS, DEPENDING UPON THE COMPLEXITY OF THE ISSUES. EARLIER, I REFERRED TO BOTH THE CHALLENGES AND THE STRENGTHS OF THE COMMISSION ON HUMAN RIGHTS. THE COMMISSIONíS GREATEST STRENGTH LIES IN ITS HARDWORKING STAFF OF TWO: NEIL ALEXANDER, THE CHIEF HEARING EXAMINER, AND JOAN DAVENPORT, THE ASSOCIATE HEARING EXAMINER. EVERY DAY, THEY DO THE WORK OF A STAFF OF THREE TIMES THEIR NUMBER, AND MR. ALEXANDER STEPS IN WITH YOEMANíS SERVICE AS THE COMMISSIONíS DE FACTO FULL-TIME EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR. UNFORTUNATELY, MR. CHAIRMAN, THERE ARE NO ADDITIONAL STAFFING OR FINANCIAL RESOURCES AVAILABLE TO THE COMMISSION FROM THE OFFICE OF HUMAN RIGHTS. AT THE SAME TIME, OUR STAFF OF TWO IS THE COMMISSIONíS GREATEST CHALLLENGE. THEY PROFESSIONALLY MANAGE THEIR INDIVIDUAL CASE LOADS, IN ADDITION TO DOING THE WORK OF TWO PARALEGALS AND LEGAL ASSISTANTS, A SECRETARY AND, ESSENTIALLY, THE WORK OF THE EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR OF THE COMMISSION. IN FACT, THE POSITION OF OFFICE SECRETARY WAS LEFT UNFILLED SIX MONTHS AGO DUE TO BUDGET CONSTRAINTS, NOW REQUIRING THE HEARING EXAMINERS TO ANSWER TELEPHONE CALLS INSTEAD OF FOCUSING ON THEIR CASE LOADS. THE COMMISSIONíS STAFFING RESOURCES ARE FURTHER STRETCHED WHEN THE HEARING EXAMINERS ARE CALLED UPON TO HEAR CASES IN THE OFFICE OF HUMAN RIGHTS WHERE A DISTRICT GOVERNMENT EMPLOYEE IS THE COMPLAINANT. HAPPILY, THESE CASES ARE INFREQUENT.

MR. ALEXANDER AND MS. DAVENPORT ARE KNOWLEDGEABLE, TALENTED AND DEDICATED LAWYERS WHO DO A STELLAR JOB FOR THE COMMISSION. HOWEVER, THEY ARE WOEFULLY UNDER STAFFED, MR. CHAIRMAN. IN ADDITION, THERE ARE NO FUNDS TO HIRE THE PRIVATE BAR TO REPRESENT COMPLAINANTS. THE COMMISSION IS CONCERNED THAT THESE BUDGET ISSUES WILL CREATE AN UNPRECEDENTED BACKLOG ON OUR DOCKET. OF THE 23 CASES DOCKETED TO THE COMMISSION AS OF JANUARY 31, 2004, EIGHT ARE STAYED PENDING THE APPOINTMENT OF COUNSEL DUE TO LACK OF FUNDS, AND ONE WAS STAYED DURING DISCOVERY--ALSO BECAUSE OF A BUDGET SHORTFALL. THIS IS UNCONSCIONABLE, CHAIRMAN GRAHAM. RESIDENTS OF THE DISTRICT OF COLUMBIA WHO HAVE VESTED THEIR TRUST IN OUR LEGAL PROCESS ARE NOT REALIZING THEIR DUE PROCESS RIGHTS FOR A SPEEDY "TRIAL." FURTHER EXACERBATING THE PROBLEM, THE OFFICE OF HUMAN RIGHTS HAS HAD TO TERMINATE MANY OF ITS CONTRACTS WITH PRIVATE ATTORNEYS DUE TO THE BUDGET SHORTFALL FOR SUCH A COSTLY SERVICE. APPROXIMATELY 80% OF COMPLAINANTS NOW RELY ON COUNSEL APPOINTED BY THE OFFICE OF HUMAN RIGHTS. WHILE THE COMPLAINANT MAY RETAIN PRIVATE COUNSEL, THE OFFICE OF HUMAN RIGHTS MUST "REPRESENT THE INTERESTS OF THE COMPLAINT BEFORE THE COMMMISSION"ó TREATING THE COMPLAINT AND THE COMPLAINANT AS ONE IN THE SAME. (D.C. Code, Sect. 2-1403.12(b) AS A REMEDY, THE COMMISSION HAS ACTIVELY SOUGHT THE PRO BONO SERVICES OF LAW SCHOOL CLINICS AND LAW FIRMS. WE WERE FORTUNATE, LAST MONTH, TO ENTER INTO A PARTNERSHIP WITH THE GEORGETOWN university school of lawís institute for public representation to provide PRO BONO LEGAL SERVICES FOR COMPLAINTS CURRENTLY PENDING BEORE THE COMMISSION. THIS AGREEMENT WILL HELP PROVIDE ONLY MODEST RELIEF TO THE POTENTIAL BACKLOG. CHAIRMAN GRAHAM AND MEMBERS OF THE SUBCOMMITTEE, THE CHALLENGES BEFORE THE COMMISSION EXIST BECAUSE THERE IS NO BUDGET FOR THE COMMISSION ON HUMAN RIGHTS. CURRENTLY, COMMISSION EXPENSES ARE CARVED OUT OF THE OFFICE OF HUMAN RIGHTSí BUDGET ON AN "AS NEEDED", AD HOC BASIS. ONLY THE HEARING EXAMINERSí SALARIES ARE SPECIFICALLY INCLUDED IN THE OFFICE OF HUMAN RIGHTSí BUDGET. UNDER THIS CONSTRUCT, ALL COMMISSION OPERATING EXPENSES ARE SUBMITTED TO THE DIRECTOR OF THE OFFICE OF HUMAN RIGHTS AND ARE ALLOCATED--ON A PIECEMEAL BASIS--TO PAY FOR SUCH CRITICAL STAFF AND NON-STAFF OPERATIONAL NECESSITIES AS HEARING EXPENSES, LEGAL REPRESENTATION FOR COMPLAINANTS, A THIRD FULL-TIME HEARING OFFICER, PARALEGALS, COURT REPORTERS, DOCUMENT REPRODUCTION, SIGN LANGUAGE AND FOREIGN LANGUAGE INTERPRETERS, AND PUBLIC EVENTS HOSTED BY THE COMMISSION IN ITS EFFORTS TO CONDUCT PUBLIC OUTREACH AND EDUCATION, TO NAME A FEW. ONE OF THE MOST PRESSING ISSUES BEFORE THE COMMISSION IS LOCATING A PERMANENT HEARING ROOM THAT INCLUDES PRIVATE SPACE FOR ATTORNEYS TO CONFER WITH THEIR CLIENTS AND WITNESSES. CURRENTLY, THE COMMISSION RESERVES ANY AVAILABLE ROOM FOR ITES HEARINGS, BUT IS SUBJECT TO BEING BUMPED FOR WHAT IS DEEMED A MORE IMPORTANT ACTIVITY. THE UNCERTAINTY OF HAVING A DEDICATED, FIXED HEARING ROOM ERODES THE INTEGRITY AND IMPORTANCE OF THE MISSION OF THE COMMISSION ON HUMAN RIGHTS, AND OF THE OFFICE.

THERE IS NO STRUCTURE OR CERTAINTY IN THE LEVEL OF FUNDING THE COMMISSION HAS TO WORK WITH IN ANY GIVEN FISCAL YEAR. FORTUNATELY, THE COMMISSION ON HUMAN RIGHTS ENJOYS A VERY COOPERATIVE RELATIONSHIP WITH THE OFFICE OF HUMAN RIGHTS, AND HAS BEEN ALLOCATED OPERATING FUNDS TO THE EXTENT REALISTICALLY POSSBILE, IN CONSIDERATION OF THE DISTRICTíS BUDGET CONSTRAINTS. HOWEVER, AS THE AGENCY CHARGED WITH A VERY CRITICAL ADJUDICATIVE FUNCTION, AS WELL AS THE POWER TO CONDUCT "INVESTIGATIONS OR EXAMINATIONS OF MUNICIPAL MATTERS" (D.C. Code, Section 2-403.01(a)(b), IT IS CRITICAL TO THE PROPER AND SMOOTH FUNCTIONING OF THE DISTRICT GOVERNMENT AND ITS RESIDENTS THAT THE COMMISSION IS FULLY FUNDED THROUGH A SEPARATE LINE ITEM IN THE DISTRICTíS UPCOMING BUDGET. THE NEED IS CRITICAL, MR. CHAIRMAN, AS YOU WELL KNOW. LAST YEAR, YOU WERE INSTRUMENTAL IN ALLOCATING ADDITIONAL REVENUES TO THE COMMISSION. FOR THIS YEAR, THE COMMISSION URGES YOU TO USE YOUR BEST EFFORTS TO PROVIDE FULL FUNDING FOR OUR MANDATED OPERATIONS AND ACTIVITIES SO WE CAN PROVIDE AN IMPROVED LEVEL OF SERVICE ACCORDING TO OUR MISSION FOR THE PEOPLE OF THE DISTRICT OF COLUMBIA WHO BELIEVE THEY HAVE BEEN THE SUBJECT OF UNLAWFUL DISCRIMINATION. THE COMMISSION STANDS READY TO WORK WITH YOU TO ACHIEVE THIS GOAL.

THANK YOU, AGAIN, CHAIRMAN GRAHAM, FOR THE OPPORTUNITY TO APPEAR BEFORE YOU TODAY.

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