The judges who oversee D.C. Superior Court, accustomed to black-robed decorum, had never experienced a session like it. Screened to make sure no outsiders joined them, more than 200 court employees filed into an Aug. 12 meeting about tight budgets and flat salaries.

As the staff gathered, the tarnish on the court's once-sterling reputation was spreading. Congress, amid a federal audit, had accused the court administration of playing budgetary "shell games." Several dozen employees had told the judges that morale in their division was at an all-time low.

Court leaders were reducing spending and limiting services--including the counseling of troubled D.C. children--in an effort to avoid a repeat of the 1998 budget crisis, when the court ran out of money and stopped paying lawyers for the indigent.

The first item of business at the meeting, a report from D.C. Court of Appeals Chief Judge Annice M. Wagner about the court's daily struggle to stay within its budget, was met with silence. So was a speech by Superior Court Chief Judge Eugene N. Hamilton, who said Congress's position on court salaries was "absolutely atrocious."

But when Wagner invited questions and the first employee rose to speak, frustrations long discussed discreetly in office cubicles, courthouse corridors and the judicial dining room burst into the open.

"My name is Nancy Cohen. . . . I care deeply about the courts," began the senior personnel worker, a court staffer for 23 years. In comments later obtained by The Post, she described a time when "there was a focus on creating sound internal policies, being the best we could be from the inside out.

"We have lost that focus," Cohen said, "and it is not the fault of Congress, it's not the fault of GAO or the press. It's about the lack of leadership."

The room erupted in cheers. Some said later that Cohen gave voice to a growing conviction in the hearts of many court workers and judges that the District's busiest court is not nearly the success it should be.

Cohen went on, her voice sometimes quavering. Despite the presence of their bosses, dozens of employees interrupted with whoops and applause when she said personnel decisions are made "without regard to policies" and again when she said court restructuring has been "ill-planned and ill-executed."

They cheered, too, when Cohen reported an oft-whispered detail, that Hamilton and Court Executive Ulysses B. Hammond--the two most prominent figures in Superior Court management--"barely speak to each other."

"You should be aware that you have a work force that wants to do right, will respond to effective leadership and cares deeply about the soul of this organization," Cohen concluded, addressing five judges and Hammond.

"It is under your watch that the court has deteriorated. You have a choice: Put aside your internal issues with each other, get honest with the situation and be responsible leaders and administrators, or leave the administration of the courts to others who will."

The long ovation for Cohen's critique signaled another ebb in courthouse spirit and a flood of new headaches for court officials and many D.C. and federal representatives who are disturbed that a prized institution is suffering so.

For the second year in a row, court expenses are being squeezed. Pay increases were postponed, training was halted for three months and the court enforced "a hiring freeze . . . throughout the fiscal year," Hammond reported in a written response to questions.

Outside counseling for court clients will be funded only in "extreme emergencies" and only when approved personally by the chief judge, Hamilton said in an Aug. 16 directive. Hammond and court spokeswoman Margaret Summers refused to detail the type of services being curtailed, the amount of money involved or the number of children affected.

One court manager said that with money tight, he pays for office supplies from his pocket so his staff will not do without. A foul-up last month left the court for two days without enough blank checks to deliver child support payments, three sources said.

As Congress casts a skeptical eye on the court, the General Accounting Office is probing finance and personnel practices. John F. Schultheis, the court's chief financial officer, retired abruptly last month, saying he was weary of a "very stressful situation" and the "never-ending battle."

Determined not to overspend the $128 million budget of Superior Court and the D.C. Court of Appeals, the court's ruling five-judge committee is delving assertively into finance matters it once left to staff. Wagner told employees that the committee's effort "requires many of us to stay here late at night, and some of us all night."

Wagner has taken the lead in recent attempts to reach out to critics and repair the court's workings. Some skeptics ask, however, whether the court can rebuild morale and regain credibility without replacing its leaders, particularly Hamilton and Hammond, the $136,700-a-year court executive who serves at the chief judges' pleasure.

"They've been given their shot," one congressional staff member said. "We feel very strongly it has gone awry. If these problems are going on and on and on, I don't know if the confidence level will be there."

Hill staffers have discussed among themselves the idea of imposing a trustee to revamp the court's financial and administrative operations--as happened in the D.C. government. But one aide close to the situation called it "a long shot."

"There's always redemption, but they have to show it," said the aide, who asked not to be named. "The first part is they've got to stop blaming other people. They've just got to change, and I don't know how in the world they're going to do it to see some results in the short term."

There is widespread speculation that Hammond may step aside or be replaced in February, when he completes his 10th year. Asked about that possibility, he replied, "I'm not planning that. There is no basis to that rumor." The court executive cannot be removed unless Hamilton and Wagner agree that he must go.

Hamilton, on the bench since 1970, has two years remaining in his term as chief judge. He did not return calls seeking comment.

"Gene has to step aside for the good of the institution," said one judge. "The problem is how. The more he's piled upon, no matter how right it is, the more he'll dig in."

It is difficult to assess the breadth of disaffection, but several judges echoed the sentiment. They explained that despite Hamilton's virtues as a good-hearted man and compassionate judge who fights for the court, his aloof leadership style and defiant response to federal oversight has become a liability.

"There are people who obviously have those concerns," said one judge who shares this view, speaking carefully. "But people are going to be very leery of being associated with that effort because of the cost one would have to pay."

The 59 full-time Superior Court judges depend on Hamilton for their year-long assignments to judicial calendars, as well as for vacation preferences. More than a dozen judges have commented privately they do not speak to Hamilton about their frustrations, although they consider themselves team players, because they fear he will punish them.

Efforts by Hamilton to reorganize the court ran into trouble earlier this year, when the other four judges on the policy-making Joint Committee on Judicial Administration concluded he had exceeded his statutory authority. Court managers complained that Hamilton, acting alone, had created a parallel structure that undercut skilled staff and slowed operations.

"Management is waiting for the court leadership to change so we can move forward," said one Superior Court manager who believes the five committee members should offer to resign from the group as an act of good faith. Those considered strong leaders could be reappointed, the manager suggested.

"This is not a time for incrementalism," said the manager. "This is a time for bold moves. For the good of the court, I think they need to resign."

In three Aug. 12 meetings with courthouse staff, Wagner described the court as "underfunded" by $8 million but said there will be no furloughs. She said the court is pushing Congress to pay court staff the same as higher-paid federal employees in similar jobs.

Amid the turmoil, judges say the primary work of the courthouse is well-handled.

"Things aren't good," said one dispirited judge. "I think our credibility has been diminished, in spite of the fact that, as individual judges, we work hard and fairly administer justice. We still have a good court."