Some veteran criminal lawyers at U.S. District Court here are sounding these days a bit like 1960s anti-war protestors, complete with cries of "Hell no, we won't go."
They don't want to go to D.C. Superior Court. It's hardly Viet Nam, but the lawyers say working in the city court will mean considerably more work, less pay and constantly bruised egos.
The problem for them is that a recent change in the D.C. drug laws has moved prosecution of drug cases from the federal court to the city court. That means that the dozen or so lawyers who were regularly assigned by the federal court to represent indigent defendants in drug cases -- a substantial proportion of the criminal work in the federal court -- will have to move as well. The lawyers say they are appalled at the notion of joining about 150 criminal lawyers already hustling and scrambling through a chaotic and clogged Superior Court calendar.
Court appointed lawyers in either the federal or city court submit vouchers to presiding judges for $30 an hour for time spent in court and $20 an hour for preparation time. (Those rates have not changed since 1973.) But the city court practitioners are limited to a $42,000-a-year ceiling on court-appointed case income (a ceiling which veteran city court practitioners say can be reached only by working about 60 hours a week, every week). There is no limit in federal court. In addition, district court vouchers are rarely if ever questioned. Vouchers submitted to budget-conscious or just plain stingy Superior Court judges are often cut, the lawyers say, a blow to pride and pocketbook.
Also, the District Court lawyers are used to having their cases heard when they are scheduled. Lawyers in Superior Court sometimes wait several hours for their cases to be heard, regardless of what time they were told to be there. And Superior Court judges will not pay for waiting time.
The money problem, bad as it is, is not, several lawyers said, the biggest factor. "It's also a matter of self-esteem," said Alan Dale, a federal courthouse practitioner. "In District Court, judges treat you like professionals. They accept your word. Not at Superior Court." Other lawyers, referring to the city court as a "circus," said many of the judges there treated the lawyers and their clients like "trash."
It also means more cases and less time to devote to each case, several lawyers in Superior Court pointed out, making it far more difficult to be prepared for a case. "It forces you to be incompetent," Dale said.
Despite the drawbacks, most, like Dale, said they would probably go. "I enjoy practicing criminal law so I guess I'll have to do it," Dale said, adding that he has not yet put his name down on the list of available lawyers in Superior Court. "I just haven't been able to bring myself to do it yet."
Some, however, like Charles Barker, feel so strongly about it that they may not go. They may look for other types of work, real estate law or something, anything, that will keep them out of Superior Court. Barker is even considering working part-time.