Budget time for the city means put-up or shut-up time as far as the 100 lawyers who represent criminal defendants at the D.C. Superior Court are concerned.
Those lawyers, who are appointed by the court to represent about half of all the indigent criminal defendants who pass through the system, are still waiting to hear whether the mayor, the City Council and the Congress are going to put some money where the law -- not to mention the U.S. Constitution -- is.
It costs the city about $4.1 million a year to provide lawyers to indigents accused of crimes. Under the Constitution, anyone accused of a crime is entitled to effective assistance of counsel. If the person can't afford a lawyer, one must be appointed for him.
Last time around, Congress allowed $3.6 million -- despite a request for $500,000 more -- for the lawyers who fulfill that obligation, causing a shortfall at the end of the budget year which had to be met by borrowing funds from other city departments. The way it looks, the money is going to run out again this August.
A spokesman for the lawyers at last week's City Council budget hearings made it crystal clear what will happen when the money runs out: the lawyers will go on strike, throwing the system into chaos.
And there is another problem: the court still pays the lawyers $30 an hour for the time they spend in court and $20 an hour for time spent preparing the case. The rates have not changed since 1971, despite a D.C. Bar committee report in 1975 which said the rates were far too low and recommended they be raised to a flat $40 an hour. It would cost about $2 million to fulfill that recommendation.
The lawyers say they are in a bind and have been for years. The low rates force them to take more cases than they can properly handle. That leads to more complaints from clients and disciplinary action by the D.C. Bar.
It also may lead to a time when the city will clearly be in violation of the constitutional right to "effective assistance" of counsel. No lawyer loaded with cases can be effective, and few lawyers at those rates can afford to hire investigators to prepare cases better.
Mayor Marion Barry reportedly has been making soothing noises about doing something to get the lawyers more money. So far, though, nothing has been done, and there has been no council action to alter the pay rates.
In the meantime, the good lawyers burn out after a few years -- and just when they have acquired substantial experience -- and the defendants too often get what could only generously be called "effective assistance of counsel."
Quote of the week: "I can beat any ambulance around here," boasted Melvin Belli, the 74-year-old "King of Torts."
Belli made the statement at a press conference here last week in response to a question about whether the flamboyant San Francisco lawyer was an "ambulance chaser" -- a term for lawyers who rush to obtain clients in lucrative personal injury cases.
Belli also denied that the press conference was an attempt to recruit clients from the recent Air Florida crash here, saying that the clients he has secured so far -- families of 10 victims and a survivor -- all called him. Belli has become famous for handling legal matters for Mae West, Martha Mitchell and Jack Ruby, the man who shot Lee Harvey Oswald.
He is also known for winning enormous awards for clients, reportedly using tactics such as throwing the artificial leg of an amputee into a juror's lap.
Belli said he was unaware of an advertisement which appeared in The Washington Post five days after the accident for the Rockville office of Belli, Weil & Jacobs.
The ad said the firm handles personal injury and wrongful death cases stemming from major accidents and other causes, but did not mention aviation crashes.
Belli, who appeared on a red-draped dias in a Washington Hilton Hotel ballroom along with two public relations men, announced that, in proper negligence lawyer style, he was going to sue everyone in sight. "We plan to sue anybody who is even remotely responsible for the accident," Belli said, to avoid any malpractice charges later that he failed to name the appropriate defendant.
Belli said that he thought Air Florida would be the principal target of the lawsuits, which he expects to be consolidated in U.S. District Court in Washington. He estimated the cases could be worth up to $600,000 in damages each, with the lawyers pocketing about 25 percent, maybe more, of the awards.
Jacqueline G. Epps, an assistant commonwealth's attorney for Newport News, has been appointed a senior assistant attorney general in charge of criminal litigation for Virginia Attorney General Gerald L. Baliles.
Epps, whose salary will be around $40,000, will become the highest ranking black in a department where blacks previously have not held any positions higher than assistant attorney general.
Herman Schwartz, a former chief counsel and staff director of the Senate Antitrust and Monopoly subcommittee and longtime prisoners' rights advocate, has become a professor of law at American University's law school.