The D.C. City Council unanimously, and without debate, tentatively approved a pay increase yesterday for lawyers who represent indigent defendants in the city's courts, marking the first time in 13 years that the attorneys have received a raise.
The lawyers, who stopped accepting new cases at Superior Court Sept. 6 to protest their pay rates, are scheduled to return to work today under terms of an agreement worked out last week with city officials and approved by members of the Superior Court Trial Lawyers Association on Monday.
The legislation amends the city's 1970 Criminal Justice Act to pay the lawyers at a rate of $35 an hour for work in and out of court. The lawyers have been paid $30 an hour for court appearances and $20 an hour for work in the office.
The bill also raises the maximum amount attorneys can receive for individual cases from $400 to $900 for misdemeanors and $1,000 to $1,700 for felonies.
According to statistics provided by council member Wilhelmina J. Rolark, (D-Ward 8), chairwoman of the council's judiciary committee, which voted to bring the issue to the full council for approval, the rates would be among the highest in the country, although few jurisdictions use independent lawyers to represent indigent defendants on as large a scale as the District.
Last year, 19,628 criminal defendants appearing in Superior Court were deemed too poor to afford legal representation of their own. Most were appointed attorneys under the Criminal Justice Act. The remainder, 2,670, were represented by the Public Defender Service, a city agency that normally accepts only the most serious cases.
The legislation, as required under the Home Rule Act, is scheduled to go before the City Council a second time for a vote Oct. 4. It then will be sent to Mayor Marion Barry for his signature and would take effect immediately, Rolark said.
Rolark said yesterday the council vote "ends what could have been a crippling strike" at the court.
A deal with officers of the lawyers group was sealed late last week after officials at PDS and top judges decided that efforts to recruit attorneys from uptown law firms to take cases during the strike would be insufficient to handle the deluge of newly arrested defendants each day.
D.C. Court of Appeals Chief Judge Theodore R. Newman Jr. and D.C. Superior Court Chief Judge H. Carl Moultrie I met with city officials privately in a series of meetings last week to try to resolve the strike.
In addition, in a meeting with the striking lawyers last week, Rolark and Council Chairman David Clarke agreed to press for the legislation on an expedited basis if the group's membership approved the proposal.
Rolark and Clarke also promised to cosponsor legislation that would further increase the lawyers' pay to $55 an hour for court appearances and $45 for work out of court.
Attorneys yesterday basked in what many of them consider to be a decisive victory. The CJA lawyers in the past had resisted most forms of organization and have long been viewed as lacking the clout of other groups of lawyers.
"It's absolutely incredible," said association President Ralph J. Perrotta. "The organization now has a sense of purpose and unity that it never had before."