Dana Lee Dembrow had barely graduated from George Washington University Law School when he signed up to serve as a court-appointed lawyer in the D.C. Superior Court and was assigned his first case. It was a memorable premiere performance.
Dembrow was assigned to represent an indigent client charged with a misdemeanor, and a pretrial status hearing was scheduled for Sept. 30, 1980. But Dembrow never appear, and later wrote the judge that he was absent because, among other things, he was celebrating his birthday and working on other cases.
The incident provided Murphy with still another chance to continue his crusade against lawyers he considers incompetent. In a recently filed opinion that some consider an overreaction, Murphy found Dembrow in contempt of court and granted the young lawyer's actions a dubious distinction:
"If the Guinness Book of Records had a category of lawyer inadequacy," Murphy wrote, "the [lawyer] would be front-runner for listing in the 1980 edition."
"To be a front-runner for the record, in this court's view," Murphy continued, "it takes some doing in light of the other inadequate lawyers identified by this court during 1980.
"A court is hard pressed to know how to deal with this attorney," Murphy said. "How can anyone forget in less than a month their forget in less than a month their very first case? Would he have forgotten a retained client? Is it easier to forget the poor?"
Dembrow had his own explanation. He said in an interview that he had "simply neglected a case that was on my calendar. I worked nine to nine that day on exclusively reduced-fee cases, and I negligently overlooked one of my appointed cases."
A year ago, Murphy, administrative head of the court's criminal division, sparked a courthouse strike by attorneys who represent indigent clients after he and several other judges circulated a list of "inadequate lawyers" who were not to be appointed to new cases.
The lawyers struck again last summer to protest Murphy's practice of jailing some attorneys who were late for court appearances.
Murphy explained his action in the Dembrow incident by saving this normal bar association discipline procedures generally resulted in a "secret admonition with no real sanction" and little deterrent effect.
Holding the attorney in contempt of court might "precipitate another knee-jerk strike" and disrupt court operations, Murphy wrote. Still, he held Dembrow in contempt, but imposed no further punishment.
Murphy did not limit the critical words in his opinion to Dembrow, however. He also said that "one need only to watch a handful of criminal practioners in the Superior Court to realize anything can happen as far as lawyer inadequacy is concerned."
He cited another attorney who had appeared in court last December, announced he had read his client's presentence report -- a report prepared before a defendant is sentenced -- reviewed it with his client and both concurred in the recommendation the report made.
The only problem, Murphy said, was that no presentence report had ever been prepared.
According to Murphy, the same day another lawyer appeared in court and announced he and his client were ready for trial and that all witnesses were present.
However, Murphy said, the same lawyer already had pleaded his client guilty in the case. Murphy also cited the cases of 23 lawyers who had failed to appear in court as required during one month last fall, calling the prolem "excessive."
"Efforts by this court to deal with the lawyer inadequacy has resulted in two strikes," Murphy said, "unfavorable publicity directed toward the court as an institution, and nothing being done."
Murphy suggested the D.C. Bar take more interest in "either training lawyers or removing them."