D.C. Mayor Marion Barry said yesterday that he will not provide any immediate funds to avert a strike by lawyers who represent indigent defendants in the city's court, and leaders of the lawyers' group predicted the walkout will go forward as planned.
The mayor's remarks followed a meeting with representatives of the D.C. Superior Court Trial Lawyers Association, who are seeking their first pay raise from the city in 12 years and have voted not to accept any new cases beginning Sept. 6 unless funds are forthcoming.
"We are definitely going to walk out," said association vice president Karen Dixkoskoff. "Everyone is pushing for it, even more than we association officers are."
Barry, who met for about an hour with the attorneys, said yesterday he is sympathetic to their cause but will not take responsibility for assuring that attorneys are appointed for indigent defendants who come before the court, as prescribed by city law.
Barry told reporters that judges on the court must see that the law is carried out.
"I'm very sympathetic to the problem. Twelve years is a long time to go with a pay rate that hasn't been changed," Barry said. But he added, "As mayor, I don't have any responsibility. My action has nothing to do with what they may or may not do in September."
Barry said he would, however, discuss with City Council members the possibility of providing funds for a raise, possibly with a supplemental budget increase later this year.
Barry did not seem optimistic, though, saying that numerous proposals to fund a raise have failed because no council member has come up with a plan for providing the money in the budget.
Association president Ralph J. Perrotta said the group had not posed the strike threat to the mayor as an ultimatum, nor had they asked for any specific assurances from Barry in order to avert a strike. Still, he said, the talks had not been entirely satisfying.
"We were pleased to have him express publicly his support," Perrotta said. "To say I'm satisfied would be a little bit of an overstatement."
Association members are scheduled to meet today to discuss Barry's position.
About 80 attorneys are considered members of the association and at least twice that many lawyers participate to some degree in the Criminal Justice Act program at the court. Under the CJA program, lawyers are appointed by the court to represent indigent defendants and paid at a rate of $30 an hour for court appearances and $20 an hour for work out of court.
Last year, about 19,700 defendants were identified as being unable to hire a lawyer. Nearly 17,000 of those were assigned to CJA attorneys, and to attorneys who do the work on a voluntary basis. The remaining defendants were assigned to attorneys in the Public Defender Service, a city agency that usually handles only the most serious criminal charges.
The program, modeled after federal law, was intended to give defendants relative parity with prosecutors in presenting their cases. But attorneys for years have complained that they are underpaid and that the low pay rates discourage the most capable lawyers from participating, and force them to accept more cases than they can adequately represent.
A proposed bill would raise the pay rate to $35 an hour for work in or out of court, but city officials say there is no money for it in the budget.
The lawyers voted to strike after the Senate approved some $25 million to make improvements in the city's corrections system and to hire seven additional judges on the backlogged court.