D.C. Superior Court operations returned to normal yesterday as 44 defense lawyers who had been among those on strike since Sept. 6 to protest pay rates called in to represent about 60 newly arrested indigent defendants appearing at the court.
"It's kind of exciting to be back at work," said one of the lawyers, Susan Feinberg. "I think the rates are still very low and we have a lot of work to do to get them raised."
The lawyers, members of the Superior Court Trial Lawyers Association, had agreed to return to work yesterday if the City Council passed a measure raising their wages.
The council unanimously approved a bill Tuesday raising the rates to $35 for work in and out of court. The lawyers have been paid $30 an hour for court appearances and $20 an hour for work done in the office. They had not received a raise in 13 years.
"We're delighted to see the court back in normal operating condition," said Superior Court executive officer Larry P. Polansky.
An estimated 600 newly arrested indigent defendants appeared in court during the two-week walkout. City law requires that every defendant deemed too poor to afford legal counsel of his own be appointed an attorney by the court.
Those who appeared in court during the strike were represented by lawyers from uptown law firms and students from area law schools recruited by the city's Public Defender Service to step in. Also, two or three association members who did not honor the strike accepted some cases.
It remains unclear whether those lawyers will keep the cases they were assigned during the walkout or try to withdraw--as attorneys have done after similar walkouts--and whether judges will permit them to do so. Striking lawyers voted earlier not to accept cases assigned during the job action, but will reconsider their position on the matter, association officers said yesterday.
According to a knowledgeable source, the chief judges of Superior Court and the D.C. Court of Appeals received daily reports on court operations during the strike. The judges became concerned that the Public Defender Service, local law school clinics and lawyers with little criminal law experience were being required to represent too many defendants, the source said. The judges made a direct appeal for help to city officials.
An agreement to end the strike was worked out with the lawyers by Mayor Marion Barry, council member Wilhelmina J. Rolark, chairwoman of the judiciary committee, and Council Chairman David Clarke.
Although the lawyers had voted to demand higher rates of $55 an hour for court appearances and $45 an hour for work out of court, they accepted the $35 proposal after Rolark and Clarke insisted the higher rates would be impossible to achieve for the time being.
Rolark and Clarke agreed, however, to cosponsor legislation for the higher rates later.