Some D.C. Superior Court judges are talking about refusing to preside in criminal cases involving dangerous defendants. Defense attorneys and prosecutors predict a collapse of the local court system.
The judge's threats may be, as one judge said, "loose talk." But all three groups were stunned -- and worried -- last week, when the Reagan administration announced that more than one-third of the 122 U.S. marshals -- including all nine women deputies -- would be laid off Jan. 29 as part of a budget cutback.
The deputies shuttle defendants in and out of the courthouse, protect judges and juries, enforce evictions, execute warrants and perform a host of other functions. They are, one judge said, "the essential grease which keeps this place running."
"How would you like to be a judge sentencing a defendant to 20 years without a deputy around?" a court official asked. "What are they the judges going to do? Give the guy some keys and tell him to shut the door behind him?"
A high-level Justice Department official insisted last week that nothing like that would ever happen, that there will still be enough marshals to ensure the judges' safety even with the cuts.
One judge said some of his colleagues view the cutback as a move to "shaft the city." Others point to a letter written last year by Chief Judge H. Carl Moultrie I, to then-attorney general Benjamin Civiletti, complaining that the level of "court support services by the United States Marshals is woefully inadequate and at times crippling."
Moultrie could not be reached for comment last week, but several judges confirmed that they often waste time or pass over cases even now because a deputy cannot be found to bring a defendant up from the cellblock.
Several deputies, pointing out that the D.C. cutback is nearly a third of the entire national cutback propsed to meet budget reductions, believe the District is being singled out for cuts because 90 percent of the deputies are black.
Officials at the U.S. Marshals Service headquarters in Tysons Corner say the D.C. office is not being singled out and heatedly deny any racial motivation. The Washington office has been operating for years over nationally authorized staffing levels, those officials argue. "It is something that had to be done," one official said, indicating that the decision to cut back was based on a 1979 national manpower study and was approved by the Justice Department. "We [in the marshals service] had no choice," that official said.
But it appears that no one has figured out exactly how this cutback is supposed to work out in Superior Court. "I guess everyone is going to have to sit down and work out a plan," one headquarters spokesman said.
The bottom line, though, is clear: The cutback, if it survives almost certain legal challenges, will mean the financially strapped D.C. government will have to take up the slack.