It should have been simple. But at D.C. Superior Court these days, simplicity and clarity are scarce. As a result, the court is paying a steep price in credibility.

After the court ran out of money last year and stopped paying attorneys who represent the District's poor, Congress allocated $31.9 million for this year's payments to the lawyers and commanded that the sum be spent on nothing else.

Court leaders say they set the money aside. But they sent a budget document to federal auditors that showed it had not been.

When presented with the document at a Capitol Hill hearing May 18, the court's chief executive testified that no, the money had not been roped off. He explained at length that the lawyers would be paid not from the budgeted money as Congress had ordered, but from millions in other revenue the court expected to receive.

Listening to court executive Ulysses B. Hammond, two members of Congress were publicly furious that the court had neither earmarked the money nor honored the commandment to do so. They fired questions, worrying aloud that the other money would not materialize and that the lawyers might go unpaid again.

The next day, Chief Judge Annice M. Wagner of the D.C. Court of Appeals sent an updated budget document to Congress indicating that Hammond's testimony was wrong and that, in fact, the money had been set aside earlier.

Thus, for the umpteenth time in the last 18 months, the leaders of Superior Court and its appellate partner, the D.C. Court of Appeals, found themselves in the soup, tripped up again on matters of money and management.

Such incidents, played out in public before increasingly skeptical watchdogs, show how the once-strong court has suffered a loss of respect that troubles insiders and outsiders alike.

Sometimes it seems that the harder the court tries to dig itself out, the deeper its hole becomes. A unilateral remaking of court operations in March by Superior Court Chief Judge Eugene N. Hamilton, for example, prompted a governing committee of judges to conclude that Hamilton had exceeded his authority.

Then, just when things were settling down, the testimony of Hammond and Wagner this month on Capitol Hill riled Congress and caused the lawyers for the indigent to worry that the court again would run out of money.

"It's extremely troubling," said Colin Dunham, president of the Superior Court Trial Lawyers Association, who used the word "ineptitude" after attending the hearing. "I was frankly distressed at the defiance, defensiveness and arrogance betrayed by the court officials."

Joanne Schamest, a court-appointed lawyer in child abuse and neglect cases, said she and her colleagues feel confused by the court's multiple explanations. Mistrust is so great that when Hamilton assured Schamest and several other lawyers that they would be paid on schedule, one of them asked him to put it in writing.

"I'm relying on his promises that there will be no slowdown and nothing like last year," Schamest said, recalling four months in 1998 when lawyers went unpaid. "I'd like to believe what he says. I don't know how confident I am."

The court leaders insist that the hundreds of lawyers will be paid promptly. Hammond told Congress with confidence that the lawyers' pay would come from more than $4.1 million in revenue from government agencies. To prove it, he promised Rep. Ernest J. Istook Jr. (R-Okla.) that he would arrange letters of confirmation.

Now, court officials say, the payment will come from the congressional appropriation, as intended by Congress all along.

As the court works to improve both its accounting and its accountability, Hammond has announced a series of financial reforms prompted by a General Accounting Office audit of practices that sources have described as sloppy and outdated.

Fresh safeguards and new computers are being installed, Hammond said. Automation will increase, and an auditing position is being shifted from one office to another to enhance the integrity of the financial review process. The GAO aims to complete its months-long analysis of court financial operations in July, with a study of personnel matters to follow.

Meanwhile, Wagner told Congress that the court is preparing a legal brief disputing GAO assertions that the court illegally overspent its $108 million budget last year by $5 million. She declined to be interviewed, referring questions to Hammond, who said, "Her response is, `We're unable to respond to this at this time.' "

Senior court officials hope the painful May 18 experience before the House Appropriations subcommittee on the District will be forgiven. Agreeing to discuss the situation on background, officials said the confusion over the attorneys' payments resulted from a series of decisions innocently made.

It all started in March, said the officials, who asked not to be further identified. Fiscal Officer John Schultheis prepared the fateful budget document that showed asterisks where Congress had expected to find large numbers representing earmarked payments to the lawyers. Earlier budgets had no asterisks and showed the lawyers' money as part of two larger sums.

The new asterisks showed that child abuse and neglect lawyers would be paid from $4.1 million to $5.1 million in other revenue starting in June, while criminal lawyers for the indigent would draw money from such revenue in August and September. The court sent the document to the General Services Administration and a copy to the GAO, the officials said.

In April, Schultheis drafted another document that spread the anticipated revenue -- the $4.1 million to $5.1 million -- throughout the budget and eliminated the asterisks, the officials said. He sent that document to the GSA, which relayed it to Congress in mid-May, but apparently no one saw it before the May 18 hearing.

At the hearing, Istook and Rep. James P. Moran Jr. (D-Va.) asked Wagner to explain the asterisks. She could not. She deferred to Hammond, who oversees the court's day-to-day operations. Hammond had not previously seen the budget document or the asterisks, the officials said, but he defended the document, explaining that the court would use the outside revenue to pay the lawyers.

As Hammond answered question after question, Moran and Istook grew angrier and angrier. Hammond, in office since 1990, told them which court services would generate the money. He explained that revenue arrives at an uncertain pace, making it difficult to prepare accurate monthly budget documents.

Sounding incredulous, Istook pointed out that the credit of Congress is rock solid. The sure-fire congressional money, Istook and Moran said, is what should appear on the ledger for the lawyers, not asterisks representing funds from other sources.

Wagner, who chairs the five-judge committee that oversees Superior Court and the D.C. Court of Appeals, volunteered a revised spending plan: "Basically, it is an earmarked fund, is what you are saying. You want the earmarked funds put in an earmarked category.

"If it is at all possible, we will get you the kind of spending plan you wanted to see," Wagner said. She warned, however, that to protect the money for the lawyers, the funding of other court needs might become contingent on the outside revenue.

"As long as you understand that," Wagner stated.

"We understand that," said Moran, who had been frustrated that only the payments to the lawyers were contingent on the outside money.

In the end, no revised spending plan was needed, the senior officials said, because the court had budgeted correctly for the lawyers. But the damage was done. Wagner, Hamilton and Hammond wrote letters of clarification in the days after the hearing.

"From the very beginning," the court officials said later, "we knew what Congress's intention was, and we were fully honoring that intention."

CAPTION: Testimony by Ulysses B. Hammond, chief executive for D.C. Superior Court, led to concerns that lawyers who represent the District's poor might not be paid again.