If Washington's courthouses seemed empty last week, it's because they were.

For two days last week, judges and lawyers were in Williamsburg for the annual Judicial Conference of the District of Columbia circuit -- that's the federal court's annual event. For two more days, judges and lawyers gathered at a hotel here for the D.C. Judicial Conference -- that's the local court's annual event. Put together those two, a day's worth of travel and the fact that there was a lot of overlap in attendees, and you have much less activity in the courtrooms.

The meetings are required by statute, but tend to be rather social occasions during which mere lawyers are able to mingle with members of the judiciary. Of the two sessions, the federal court's tends to be less work-oriented, possibly because it's usually held in a resort setting with a lot of tennis courts and a golf course around.

The local conference, meanwhile, has a fuller share of panels and reports -- for example, this year's study requesting attorneys to volunteer time or money to represent civil litigants and a plan for voluntary arbitration of certain types of civil cases.

Both topics generated heated discussions among members of the audience, with the tone set by a former Superior Court judge who said there was no need to ask attorneys to volunteer for work until the Superior Court resolved problems that cause attorneys to sit around all day waiting for cases to be called.

Another speaker sympathized with the former judge to some extent, but said the bar could not afford to wait as long as it would take for the court to "get its act together."

The discussion on representation of civil case indigents was broken down into various resolutions. The only one that was defeated was one recommending that members of out-of-state bars be allowed to represent the poor in civil cases here. That one failed when someone pointed out the conference would be saying, in effect, that lawyers who weren't considered good enough for paying clients here would be considered good enough for the poor.

There was also some serious discussion over a proposal for voluntary arbitration panels to be used in some civil cases, but a floor amendment that would have made the arbitration binding failed.

The conference was held at a time when the court's financial problems are serious, and D.C. Superior Court Chief Judge H. Carl Moultrie pointedly warned the attorneys that if the court's doors close in September as he predicts they will because of lack of funds, it will mean that attorneys will lose fees. "You'll get no money, yet I've heard no voices" come to the support of the court in its recent pleas for additional funds, Moultrie added.

Moultrie's gentle chiding of the attorneys came in the judge's State of the Judiciary address, which included a joke told by the widely respected jurist about a 75-year-old judge and a prostitute. Later some members of the audience privately questioned the judge's selection of humorous material for a gathering of a rather distinguished group of male and female attorneys.

Meanwhile, Washington Post reporter Laura A. Kiernan reported from Williamsburg that, as usual, the federal court's conference was short on official business and long on social events -- with plenty of opportunity for the bench and bar to mingle outside the often stifling confines of the federal courthouse.

However, squeezed in between tennis and golf tournaments, cocktil parties, dinner and the joys lure of Busch Gardens and historic Wiliamsburg, the judges and lawyers at the 41st annual conference did hear a few words on the state of the federal courts, pro bono representation in civil cases and the never-ending question of the revolving door between government and private practice.

One of the more interesting events was a panel moderated by U.S. Circuit Judge Patricia M. Wald (one of what U.S. Circuit Chief Judge J. Skelly Wright calls the "new recruits" to the appeals court) that focused on legislative moves to give the courts greater authority over federal agencies.

It seems the regulatory reform movement is still kicking hard on Capitol Hill despite the demise of the so-called Bumpers amendment -- named for its sponsor, U.S. Senator Dale Bumpers (D-Ark.) -- that would have made it a lot easier for federal courts to overturn agency opinions. The amendment was attached to the Judicial Improvements Act.

After a voice vote in the Senate last September approving the amendment, it disappeared in the House Judiciary Committee. But in its stead a month ago emerged "Baby Bumpers," which -- while more restrained than its parent amendment -- would still require the agencies to prove in court that their decisions were valid.

The original Bumpers amendment would have required the agencies to show by a preponderance of evidence that their rules and regulations were valid. That would have imposed a new, tougher standard on the agencies whose decisions are now "presumed" to be valid by the court -- meaning they can only be overturned if the agency action was arbitrary or capricious.

Instead of a preponderance of evidence, Baby Bumpers calls for "substantial evidence" to shore up a decision.

Baby Bumpers, attached to a comprehensive regulatory reform bill that was reported out of the Senate Judiciary Committee by a vote of 17-0, is supported by U.S. Sen. Alan K. Simpson (R-Wyo.), who said it "could and would make the regulation-writers pause" before they put their rules on paper and "would force the courts to take a hard look" at the justification for those rules when they are challenged in court.

Charles D. Ferris, chairman of the Federal Communications Commission, had a decidedly different point of view. He said Baby Bumpers "denigrates the institution of Congress" by shifting the legislature's public policy-making role to the judiciary.

The middle view came from Stephen G. Breyer, chief counsel to the Senate Judiciary Committee, who told the conference that both sides were overreacting somewhat. He said Baby Bumpers is only saying to the agencies and the courts that they should "look a little more closely" at the rules they write.

Meanwhile, the amendment is now sitting in mini-conference between the Senate Governmental Affairs and Judiciary committees.

Stuart M. Gerson, a former assistant U.S. attorney here, has left the law firm of Reed Smith Shaw and McClay to become a partner and head of litigation at Epstein, Becker, Borsody and Green . . . Thomas A. Wadden, Leslie Scheeer and William F. Krebs have moved their law practice to 1730 K St. NW.

Former budget director Bert Lance, his codefendants, their lawyers and families -- and some reporters -- all were gathered on the broad patio of defense attorney Erwin Mitchell's elegant home in Dalton, Ga. last weekend. The discussion centered, as one might expect, on the recent acquittals and hung jury in Lance's bank fraud trial.

LaBelle Lance, Bert's wife, was overheard saying:

"Isn't it wonderful? First Bert, and then they've decided not to prosecute Hamilton (Jordon, Presiden Carter's chief aide)! And (U.S. Sen.) Herman (Talmadge), too! I guess they decided after they lost against us that they'd better just leave those Georgians alone!"