One man spent two weeks in jail because his attorney failed to tell him his bail had been lowered. Another was indicted on two felony counts because he couldn't reach his lawyer to find out if he should plead guilty to lesser charges.
These and other cases were cited in a District of Columbia Bar report as examples of "substandard performance" by attorneys paid with federal Criminal Justice Act funds to represent indigent defendants in D.C. Superior Court.
"Unfortunately, a disproportionate share of CJA cases has in the past been assigned to a small group of regular CJA practitioners who are chronically unprofessional," the report said.
"We believe that steps should be taken to remove such attorneys from the list of those eligible for CJA appointments," it continued.
This would remove these lawyers, who do little else but handle cases paid by CJA funds, from their major source of income. Known informally as "the Fifth Street Bar" because of the court's location, these lawyers often have no offices, law library or telephones. They spend their time in the courthouse, which is often the only place where clients can reach them.
While the problem of inferior representation by some of the Superior Court's regular lawyers had been well recognized in legal circles here, this is the first time the bar has taken such a strong step toward reform.
The report by a special committee investigating complaints of substandard legal practices in Superior Court has been accepted by the D.C. Bar's board of governors, which makes it official bar association policy.
The bar called on its disciplinary board to investigate promptly complaints against lawyers praticing in Superior Court. At present, the disciplinary board refuses to act unless an attorney quits or is removed from the case by a judge or until the case being tried is decided.
The bar also asked Superior Court judges to name a new lawyer to replace one who has been accused of mishandling a case.
Judges now refuse to replace attorneys who have merely been accused of mishandling cases.
The Bar also asked that the D.C. Court of Appeals, which is in charge of legal discipline, should allow the bar association's disciplinary committee to order lawyer's names to be removed from the list of those eligible for CJA funds if they practice in a substandard manner.
The report said there are 11 Superior Court regulars "frequently mentioned by judges and attorneys as being either incompetent, uninterested, overloaded with cases or all three."
At present, the only limit on a lawyer's assignment to CJA cases is his income; he cannot earn more than 27,000 in CJA funds in one year.
"We believe that the problem of substandard performance by court-appointed attorneys is one which has been created in substantial part by the tolerance of such conduct for more than a decade," the report said.
The committee was headed by Peter H. Wolf, a former member of the "Fifth Street Bar."
The committee acknowledged that it is hard to second guess a lawyer's strategy on cross-examination, but "there is no difficulty in stating that an attorney who permits his client to remain in prison for two months merely because he or she lacks the initiative to confirm the client's address and employment has not performed at the level of professional service required by the court."
The D.C. Bar report is one of a series of documents criticizing lawyers who regularly practice at Superior Court. The examples came from a February report to judges and the bar by groups working in the courts and jails. Two years ago, a 125-page, 27,750 study ordered by the District's federal judges came to the same conclusions about the quality of legal representation by CJA lawyers.