D.C. Superior Court will halt payments to hundreds of court-appointed lawyers for indigent crime suspects next week when it reaches a $25 million spending ceiling imposed by Congress.
Payments would resume within a few weeks if Congress approves--and President Clinton signs--a budget measure permitting the court to spend $1.2 million in interest income on the outstanding legal bills.
Defense lawyers, who went unpaid for months when the court ran out of money last year, reacted with alarm to news that the payments would be interrupted again. Rep. James P. Moran Jr. (D-Va.) called the situation "inexplicable and inexcusable."
But senior court officials said that the situation this year is different and that Congress shares an important measure of responsibility for setting an unbreakable spending limit.
During last year's budget process, the court predicted that it would need $25 million to pay Criminal Justice Act lawyers who defend the city's poor. Congress approved the amount but also took the unusual step of declaring that the court could not spend more without Capitol Hill's approval.
Legal bills arrived faster and in greater amounts than the court anticipated. A notice on D.C. Courts letterhead went to court-appointed lawyers over the weekend, reporting that the Sept. 10 payroll would push the year's payments to the ceiling.
The notice declared that no more checks will be issued until Congress takes action. The reason, the letter said, is the $25 million spending cap. Moran, who has been highly critical of the financial management of Superior Court and the D.C. Court of Appeals, said Congress gave the court what it sought during budget negotiations last year. If money were a problem, he said, Congress should have been notified early this year.
"I don't think Congress is the fall guy here," said Moran, ranking Democrat on the House Appropriations subcommittee on the District. "We have been giving them whatever they asked for, but then we find out after they get what they asked for, that they didn't ask for enough. That's what's so frustrating."
Court Executive Ulysses B. Hammond notified Congress on June 21 that he expected attorney billings to exceed the spending cap by $1 million. He said courthouse cost-cutting and excess money in an account for child abuse and neglect lawyers could fill the gap, if Congress agreed.
"If legislation is required to accomplish this purpose, please consider this letter as a request . . . for such legislation," Hammond wrote, invoking the name of the five-judge committee that oversees court operations.
The result was the agreement to pay the lawyers with $1.2 million in interest income, said Betty Ann Kane, a former D.C. Council member who now works part time on legislative affairs for the court.
"We are pleased," Hammond said yesterday, "that Congress has under consideration a bill, consistent with our request, that will address this issue."
On May 25, Hammond notified Colin Dunham, the president of the Superior Court Trial Lawyers Association, that the court might need to seek approval from Congress to exceed the funding limit. He said he would appreciate the lawyers' support if the effort became necessary.
Several lawyers who represent indigent clients said yesterday that the notice announcing the pay stoppage took them by surprise. They pointed to a May 20 memorandum from Superior Court Chief Judge Eugene N. Hamilton, which said the lawyers "will be paid in June-September 1999, just as they are being paid now."
Lawyers were paying particularly close attention this year. One year ago, after telling lawyers that bills would be paid on schedule, the court abruptly stopped writing checks, eventually falling $4.1 million behind.
"We got all these promises that it would not happen again, that it was a once-in-a-lifetime thing and bam!" court-appointed lawyer James Beane said. "There was no warning at all."