No matter how poor a defendant is, in this country he or she has the constitutional right to a lawyer.
And it has been a long and proud tradition of the legal profession that lawyers donate their services to those who cannot afford to pay for legal assistance.
But local attorney David Sitomer, who practices in the Superior Court, says he has had enough -- and has succeeded in getting some relief from a Superior Court judge.
Sitomer had so many indigent cases assigned to him -- 27 according to court papers -- that he finally told the judge that his constitutional rights were being violated.
Sitomer classifies himself as one of about 110 "family court specialists" who routinely are paid public funds to represent children in neglect cases -- cases where the city determines that a child should be taken out of the parents' home. There are about 5,000 such cases a year.
In return for taking these cases, the family court lawyers agree to pick up another kind of case, for free -- the legal representation of indigent parents who go to court to fight the removal of their "neglected" children.
Sitomer contends that in these parental cases only about 60 attorneys -- out of more than 10,000 lawyers here -- handle 80 percent of the pro bono work. The result is an extremely heavy caseload for each attorney, with some carrying as many as 50 or 60 free cases, Sitomer said, or with many cases drawn out for years until a child is 21.
"This is an example of pro bono run amok," says Zona Hostetler, head of the D.C. Bar's public service activities section. "No one is served if the lawyer has 80 uncompensated cases. Lawyers won't have the time to investigate the facts and determine if it's in the child's best interest to be separated from the parents."
Sitomer says the situation resembles "involuntary servitude" and that the cases "should be spread over the whole bar." He asked D.C. Superior Court Judge Samuel B. Block for some legal relief, claiming the impositions on his professional time were an "unconstitutional" deprivation of his rights as a practicing attorney.
Although the dispute seems to hinge on the policy of requiring attorneys to volunteer their services for the adult cases, this also is a story of how a big-city court system with financial problems must attempt to guarantee the rights of those who cannot afford -- but are entitled to -- court services.
Some attorneys -- including those in the D.C. Corporation Counsel's office -- disagree with Sitomer. The Corporation Counsel's office argues that an attorney has a professional obligation to provide pro bono services.
The judge agreed with Sitomer. The "burden upon attorneys . . . by virtue of the present system of appointment is rapidly approaching an unacceptable and potentially unconstitutional state," he said, reducing Sitomer's pro bono caseload of 27 cases to 10.
"To turn a deaf ear to the substance of those claims," Block said, "would be to fail in this court's duty to the proper administration of justice, in general, and to the rights of indigent parents and children and the attorneys who represent them, in particular."
Block did not make a final determination on the constitutional aspects of Sitomer's complaint pending a further hearing on May 26.