Leaders of striking defense lawyers at D.C. Superior Court yesterday reached a tentative agreement with city officials to return to work Wednesday provided they are assured of a pay raise by the City Council and Mayor Marion Barry.
Under terms of a proposed settlement reached after a series of meetings between strike organizers and city officials yesterday, Barry, who has been under mounting pressure to end the strike, promised he would find $4.1 million to fund higher wages for the lawyers beginning sometime this year.
Representatives of the striking Superior Court Trial Lawyers Association agreed to put the proposal to a vote among members on Monday. If the attorneys accept the city's offer, it would immediately trigger actions by key council members that could mean a final settlement and a return to work for the lawyers on Wednesday, council members and representatives for the attorneys said. The lawyers have been on strike since Sept. 6.
Council member Wilhelmina J. Rolark (D-Ward 8) said that following a favorable vote, she would convene on Monday an additional session of the judiciary committee, which she chairs, and push for passage of legislation raising the lawyers' pay to $35 an hour. Currently the lawyers, who represent indigent defendants under terms of the city's Criminal Justice Act, are paid $30 an hour for court appearances and $20 an hour for work out of court.
Council Chairman David A. Clarke, who attended yesterday's meetings with Rolark, said that if the legislation is reported out of committee, he will move to waive rules so that the full council can immediately take it up in its meeting on Tuesday.
As a third condition, Barry must have $4.1 million to fund the raise, which would take effect in October, if the council approves the measure. Rolark and Clarke also pledged to cosponsor legislation for a further rate increase in fiscal year 1985.
Barry yesterday sent Rolark a letter saying he had "modified his position" on the pay issue and pledging to sign legislation for a raise, according to Annette Samuels, the mayor's spokeswoman. Barry said "the bill should not be opposed simply because of the financial consequences," and promised to initiate budget reprogramming measures so that a raise can be implemented in the coming fiscal year.
If lawyers refuse the package, legislation for a raise would not be considered by the judiciary committee until Wednesday, if at all.
"I feel very good about it," said association vice president Karen Dixkoskoff yesterday. "I think the mayor, Mrs. Rolark and Mr. Clarke have been very responsive to the situation. I anticipate there will be a final resolution to the situation."
"The court simply cannot stop working," said Rolark. "The court system is a very integral part of the whole community. We've simply got to move cases."
The meetings followed a letter delivered Thursday to the mayor, Rolark and Superior Court Chief Judge H. Carl Moultrie I in which the Public Defender Service said court operations would "reach a crisis point" early next week unless city officials took steps to end the strike.
PDS director Frank Carter said there simply are not enough attorneys to take new criminal cases. Yesterday the agency was forced to take nearly triple the number of cases it normally accepts and arraignments involving at least three indigent defendants had to be postponed because no attorneys were available to represent them, a court spokesman said.
"Tomorrow will be as rocky as today," Carter said yesterday. "What happens next week is anybody's guess."
D.C. Bar president David Isbell urged the lawyers to accept the package when they vote Monday. "I really hope the proposal will be accepted," he said. "I just don't see any good coming out of the alternatives."
Strike leaders, some of whom have urged the attorneys to accept the proposal, nonetheless predicted a stormy session and a close vote at Monday's meeting. Many of the attorneys continue to press for rates higher than those either Rolark or Clarke are willing to propose.
A large segment of the approximately 80 voting members of the trial lawyers association are pushing for rates of $55 an hour for court work and $45 for work done in the office. They believe the association had previously voted to hold out for those rates, but poor record-keeping in association meetings has left that issue unclear.
"My position is, let the system collapse until we get the money" in the higher rates, said association member W. Edward Thompson. "We've got people who can't pay their phone bills."
At a meeting in the courthouse yesterday, both Rolark and Clarke said that achieving those rates would be impossible for the time being. "We both felt the higher rates would take more money and further hearings," Clarke said. "We couldn't get a bill for the higher rates through at the present time."
Meanwhile, the Joint Committee on Judicial Administration of the city's courts, chaired by D.C. Court of Appeals Chief Judge Theodore R. Newman Jr., yesterday was said to be considering every possible alternative in case the strike is not resolved soon, including ordering lawyers from uptown law firms to accept new cases.
"Every defendant will get an attorney and until such time as the court can't do that, the court isn't going to say anything more about it," a court spokesman said.