In the hallway outside the courtroom of D.C. Superior Court Judge Joseph M.F. Ryan Jr. one day last week stood two city firemen. They had worked from 11 p.m. to 7 a.m. one of the men said, and had come directly to Judge Ryan's courtroom to testify in a case involving a gun violation.
Another witness, in a different case, had driven 23 hours from Oklahoma, summoned by the government to testify at a trial also scheduled to be heard by Judge Ryan.
A defense lawyer had spent a late night in the D.C. jail with his client, in last-minute preparation for his trial date with Judge Ryan.
But the judge was not there. A brigadier general in the Air Force Reserve, Ryan said he had taken three days of annual leave to attend a military seminar in Denver.
And the problem with that, prosecutors and defense lawyers said, was that they had received no advance notice that there would be no judge to hear their cases.
So, instead of taking their places in the courtroom, the lawyers found themselves, calendars in hand, crowded into a small room near Ryan's chambers where his courtroom clerk arranged new dates for the cases.
"If we did it they would go berserk," said one of the two firemen about the judge's sudden failure to appear in court. his case was continued until April 14, he said.
"The whole thing just got fouled up," said Judge Ryan, who added that he knew at least 10 days ago that he would have to be out of town during,the end of last week.
"I told my staff to reschedule those cases," in advance, Ryan said in a telephone interview late Friday night, "I thought it had been done."
The judge, who is known to come down hard on lawyers who are late for appearances in his courtroom, acknowledged that he likes to keep "their feet to the fire" and move his calendar along.
"But this time I goofed through my staff," he said, "I don't know where the foul-up occurred, but I'm responsible."
Frustrated prosecutors, left to juggle their schedules and witnesses to other dates, said they did not learn that Ryan would be absent from the bench until late Tuesday afternoon, the day before the judge began his leave. Some defense lawyers showed up in court with their witnesses, ready for trial, only to learn from Ryan's courtroom clerk that the entire three-day calendar had been postponed. Other defense lawyers said they heard courthouse rumors about Ryan's planned absence, and after checking with his chambers, avoided unnecessary trips to the Superior Court by their witnesses.
After he decided to go to Denver, Ryan said, his staff said they would advise the U.S. attorney's office that continuances would have to be arranged and that witnesses would not be required to appear on the dates when Ryan would be away from the court.
"Evidently, the system broke down," Ryan said in tan interview shortly after he returned from Denver.
Varous sources said informal messages about Ryan's possible absence were filtered through the U.S. attorney's office two weeks ago by Ryan's staff. But, a source said, the U.S. attorney's office has been "burned" before by information that came from Ryan's staff.
In January, for example, Judge Ryan scolded Assistant U. S. Attorney Daniel DeRose in open court because DeRose relied on notification from Ryan's law clerk that a case would be continued, according to an official transcript of the proceeding.
". . . I'm the one who continues; not my secretary not my law clerk nor nobody," Ryan told DeRose, according to the Transcript. "Any continuance is done through me, and I'm here to try cases."