Amid the discarded newspapers, the litter of empty coffee cups and lunch bags, the occasional gin rummy and hearts card games and the soft murmur from huddles about pending cases, the talk inside the D.C. Superior Court lawyer's lounge this week mostly vented frustration and anger.
They were angry, they said about being treated like "second class attorneys" by D.C. Superior Court judges and about salaries that place them near the economic bottom of an otherwise lucrative profession.
By Monday, the vast majority of the 200 lawyers who are appointed regularly by the court to defend poor people in the District will be starting the second week of their ban on accepting new court-appointed cases. They expect to continue it at least for the next few days.
Meanwhile, The Justice Department announced yesterday it is conducting a preliminary investigation into the strike by the attorney's to determine if they are in violation of federal anti-trust laws. The attorneys possibly could be in violation of Section 1 of the Sherman Anti-Trust Law which prohibits a conspiracy to restrain trade, a Justice spokesman said.
"Any time competitors get together and make an agreement they run the risk of an antitrust violation," the spokesman said. "We're looking at the strike from a civil point of view and it is quite possible that nothing will come of the investigation."
The moratorium has not prevented the poor from having legal representation. Superior Court Judge Tim Murphy recruited legal help from several major law firms and students from area law schools. Some lawyers who have refused to join the strike also have continued to represent the poor.
Murphy told a reporter that a large percentage of the court's 44 judges sympathized with many of the lawyer's complaints, especially the issue of low pay and the need to be paid in a timely manner. He said he would be willing to testify before any legislative body in support of a change in the law that would raise their salaries, now $20 an hour for out-of-court work and $30 an hour for in-court work, with an annual maximum of $27,000.
But in a letter to John H. Treanor, president of the striking lawyers' group, the judge complained about his inability to keep what he says are inadequate lawyers from representing the poor. "Referring matters to the [D.C. Bar's] grievance committee is like sending them to the United Nations," Murphy's letter said. "The committee has never taken public action against a lawyer for ineffective assistance."
Lawyers who read the letter said they were angry about the tone of it.
The lawyers said judges are more interested in cutting down the size of the Superior Court caselcad by encouraging guilty pleas and speedy trials without juries than they are in justice, a claim that judges deny.
Recently, Murphy, chief of the court's misdemeanor section, wrote a letter to court-appointed attorneys indicating that if one of their clients pleads guilty, he will approve a payment voucher for the attorney for up to $150 -- virtually without question.
Murphy also said he would not question payments of up to $200 in cases where lawyers chose to have a judge hear a case rather than a jury.
Under the Criminal Justice Act program, which finances legal aid for the poor, judges appoint lawyers to cases, and the same judge who hears a case approves the voucher that pays the attorneys.
"What do you think our clients are going to think when they learn of the judge's letter and when we recommend to them that they plead guilty?" asked William Blair, a spokesman for the attorney group. "They're going to think that we sold them down the river for $150."
Lawyers also complained that in courtrooms, judges humiliate and intimidate them before their clients. "When we go to visit clients in jail, sometimes they tell us that they want a real attorney, not a court-appointed one," said one lawyer who asked not to be identified.
The $27,000 maximum annual salary has not changed since 1971. From that amount, lawyers said they must pay investigators' fees, secretarial and office expenses, while U.S. attorneys and judges have investigators, law libraries and secretaries all provided by taxpayers.
James Hipskind, a lawyer for seven years and formerly a political organizer for Common Cause, said, "The way this system works, we have to work harder, take more cases than we should have to, just to make a living."
Wallace (Gene) Shipp Jr., considered one of the best criminal defense lawyers at the court, said, "To make the justice system work, you've got to keep good defense attorneys. But in this kind of atmosphere, we're chasing so many good lawyers away, it's a shame."
Shipp said he is actively seeking other employment and he was observed handing out copies of letters to judges asking them to write him letters of recommendation.
Although lawyers said they have long been upset about inadequate pay and untimely payments, a list of "inadequate" lawyers that was circulated among judges last week precipitated the ban on new cases. Lawyers on the list were not to be appointed to new cases.
"We were concerned about the list becuase we never heard about it before," Blair said. "We want due process. If we are on the list, we want to know, and know why. If we are deemed inadequate, we want to know what we can do to get off that list."
Just yesterday, the D.C. Court of Appeals reversed the conviction of attorney Paul G. Evans by two judges who held Evans in contempt of court twice for failing to appear in three court-appointed cases and fined him $900.
In one contempt case, on the failure to appear charges, Evans was fined $500. The appellate judges ruled that he was improperly denied a jury trial by Superior Court Judges Sylvia Bacon and Leonard Braman. In the second case, in which Evans was fined another $400 for failing to pay the first fine, the Court of Appeals concluded that the bias of Braman made the conviction "impermissibly tainted."
The appellate court reduced Evans' $500 fine to $300 in the first case and reversed the conviction in the second instance.
Judge Murphy said the list of allegedly inadequate attorneys is no longer being circulated. But news that the list was abolished was not enough to stop the moratorium.
For several years now, lawyers who make a majority of their salaries by representing indigent clients assigned to them by the courts have bristled at the notion of being considered inferior attorneys, commonly referred to as "Fifth Street" attorneys.
The term refers to the traditional "baggy pants" lawyers, who because of limited resources and inferior reputations, searched for work around Fifth Street NW, where the courts are located.The "Fifth Streeters" scrambled for clients, usually the poor and uneducated, offering their services in front of the court buildings and inside the courthouse corridors.
They were known as incompetents who "operated out of briefcases or their vest pockets," according to judges and some lawyers interviewed, "taking watches, bicyles or anything they could get for payment."
Court-appointed lawyers admit that some of their colleagues are incompetent, but not enough for all of them to "be broad-brushed with the 'inferior' status."
"The quality of court-appointed attorneys has improved dramatically," said Sam Harahan, an attorney conducting a review for the D.C. Bar Association of the court's operations 10 years after its reorganization. "We're seeing younger law graduates getting experience under their belts representing the poor, increasing the pressure on those less competent. Judges also become a factor in this because they appoint the attorney to the cases. You cannot use the term Fifth Streeter and [court-appointed] attorney synonymously."
Judge Murphy expressed similar sentiments. He estimated the "inadequate" attorneys total about 10 percent of the 200 who represent the poor. He said those 10 percent "fail to file bond review motions, fail to appear for court proceedings or adequately prepare cases timely and meet with prosecutors to discuss possible plea matters."
"Those who fit the negative image of the Fifth Streeter are still here," Murphy said. "Come down early some morning and randomly walk down the halls and say 'I got a drunk driving charge' and see what happens."