A group of lawyers who represent poor people in D.C. Superior Court voted yesterday to go on strike for the second time this year -- primarily to protest the strict courtroom policies of Judge Tim Murphy.
In an emotionally charged meeting, about 65 of the 160 members of the Superior Court Trial Lawyers Association complained that Murphy, head of the court's misdemeanor trial section, has unfairly sentenced several lawyers to jail recently for arriving late for trials in his courtroom.
The lawyers, who said they will begin the strike today, staged a five-day protest in February over a list Murphy and five other judges were using to bar certain lawyers from appointments to new cases in the court.
The impact of that strike was minimal, the lawyers now say, because Murphy asked major D.C. law firms to send lawyers to take court-appointed cases.
"We felt that our strike could have a greater impact now," said William Blair, presient of the lawyers' group, "because Judge Murphy will be on vacation until September; there are no law school students here to take cases, and many of the uptown lawyers are on vacation." At this time of year, there are about twice the number of usual assignments, because of the increased amount of street crime.
Rumors of a possible new strike began late last month after Murphy held lawyer Stephen Millstein in contempt of court and sentenced him to four weekends at the D.C. Jail for arriving more than an hour late for a trial in Murphy's courtroom. Millstein has appealed the sentence.
Two weeks ago, another lawyer, Ronald Tucker, was held in contempt of court and sentenced to five weekends in jail for showing up 10 minutes late. o
Murphy suspended Tucker's sentence and put him on probation for one year. In addition, Murphy asked other judges in the court to notify him if Tucker was ever late in their courtrooms.
Last week, Murphy threatened to jail James Hipskind when the lawyer arrived in court 20 minutes late for a trial. Hipskind told the judge his Metro train was 20 minutes late.
Murphy ordered the lawyer to produce Metro records to prove the train was not on Schedule, but yesterday Metro told Hipskind that its records show only a 10-minute delay. Hipskind is scheduled to appear today before Murphy. The judge said he plans to start his vacation today.
Yesterday, attorney John Fowler was held in contempt by Murphy for being late. Fowler said he had been in another courtroom when the judge's clerk called the courtroom to announce that Fowler's case was the next one to be heard.
"We feel that it is morally wrong to put a lawyer in jail for something that neither the courts nor Congress has deemed a crime," said Blair.
"I have complained repeatedly to the bar's disciplinary board about lawyers who will not live up to their responsibility to be on time," Murphy said yesterday. "The disciplinary board does nothing about these lawyers.
"We still have a handful of lawyers in the system who will not accept full responsibility for their cases," the judge added. "For them we must resort to the ultimate weapon."
The "ultimate weapon," Murphy said, is the threat and sometimes the reality of a stiff fine or jail sentence for lawyers who "disrupt the court system" by frequently being late for court proceedings.
Many lawyers feel that Murphy is being unfair by requiring lawyers to adhere to strict time schedules in a court system in which a lawyer is frequently scheduled to appear before several judges at the same time.
Chief Judge H. Carl Moultrie I said he was not familiar with the lawyers' grievances or their plans to go on strike. "None of the lawyers has come to me to talk about this," Moultrie said. "They know where my office is and my doors are always open."
Following the last strike, Moultrie appointed a grievance committee of three lawyers and three judges, which, Blair said, has brought about some improvements.Vouchers submitted by lawyers are now paid within a month rather than the six months it once took. And the ceiling on the amount lawyers can earn from court-pointed cases has been raised from $27,000 a year to $42,000, Blair said.