Members of the striking D.C. Superior Court Trial Lawyers Association yesterday voted to accept a city proposal for a wage increase and return to work tomorrow if the City Council, as expected, approves the pay package today.
The vote clears the way for an end to the two-week-old strike by lawyers who represent indigent defendants in the court. The lawyers stopped accepting cases Sept. 6 to protest pay rates that have not increased in 13 years.
After yesterday's vote by approximately 100 defense attorneys, the city council's judiciary committee unanimously, with no debate, approved a raise for the lawyers.
Council member Wilhelmina J. Rolark, who chairs the judiciary committee, said she will move to suspend rules so the raise bill can be taken up by the full council on an expedited basis today.
Rolark predicted swift passage of the measure. Mayor Marion Barry has pledged to find $4.1 million in the city's budget to pay for the increase.
The strike's impact has mounted as more and more new cases have come into the court, leading Public Defender Service director Frank Carter last week to predict that court operations would "reach a crisis point" early this week unless the walkout was brought to an end.
Despite a strong effort to recruit attorneys to represent newly arrested indigent defendants during the strike, Carter said, PDS was being forced to take more cases than it could handle. Some cases had to be postponed last week because no attorneys were available.
Yesterday, nearly half the more than 60 indigent defendants appearing in court were assigned to six law students from Howard University. Normally, each lawyer representing indigent defendants receives two to four new cases a day.
The city currently pays lawyers $30 an hour for court appearances on behalf of indigent defendants and $20 an hour for work out of court. The bill reported by Rolark's committee yesterday would raise the pay rate to $35 an hour for work in or out of court.
Approval by the lawyers group followed an occasionally boisterous debate among attorneys who packed a closed meeting in the lawyers' lounge at the D.C. courthouse. Originally the association had voted to demand rates of $55 an hour for court appearances and $45 an hour for work in the office.
Some members insisted that the association hold out for the higher rates. But a tentative agreement worked out late last week by strike leaders and Rolark, Council Chairman David Clarke and Barry eventually passed on a voice vote.
"We had a very solid vote to go back to work," said association president Ralph J. Perrotta, adding that association members still hope to raise the pay rates higher in the near future.
"I don't think people are satisfied," he said. "We agree that the rates are extraordinarily low compared with what private attorneys charge."
Perrotta and other strike leaders had agreed tentatively to accept the city's offer after officials insisted that achieving the higher rates would be impossible for the time being.
"This is the beginning, not the end," vowed association vice president Karen Dixkoskoff after yesterday's vote. "We got a recognition by the mayor and by Chief Judge H. Carl Moultrie that this is serious and that our clients have the right to adequate counsel. We hope we've established ourselves sufficiently so that this doesn't happen again."
Moultrie did not return a reporter's phone calls yesterday. A court spokesman said the accord "appears to be a fair agreement."
Barry worked out initial terms of the settlement with strike leaders in a private dining room of a downtown restaurant Thursday night. The tentative accord was negotiated further between the lawyers, Rolark and Clarke on Friday, when the two council members promised to take immediate steps to push the legislation through the council if the association accepted the package.
In order to bring the bill before the counsel, nine members must first vote for a waiver of the rules to hear it. Council insiders saw yesterday's unanimous committee vote as a sign that the proposal would have smooth sailing.
Barry yesterday said he was "very glad that the strike leadership was sensitive to the city's problems" in not pressing for the higher rate and was "very pleased that he was able to play a role in bringing about a settlement," acoording to spokeswoman Annette Samuels.
Many attorneys went into yesterday's meeting unsure how they would vote because the legislation makes no provision for future raises, although Rolark and Clarke promised to cosponsor a bill later that would raise the pay rates to $55 and $45.
Some who held out for the higher wages remained dissatisfied yesterday.
"They missed their chance," said dissident member Davis Couch. "It's a shame. I think we have to use what we have to improve the system."
"I'm glad that all the parties have reached an accord," Carter said yesterday. "Here's hoping that things are back to normal on Wednesday."