The District may be attempting to launch a renaissance under Mayor Anthony A. Williams (D), but one part of the government is struggling with the same old turmoil: the corporation counsel's office, the city's legal arm.
The District's law office, which represents 90 city agencies in a wide variety of litigation, has been without a permanent leader since the resignation last spring of John M. Ferren, who left the job to return to a judgeship at the D.C. Court of Appeals. Like his predecessor, Charles F.C. Ruff, Ferren had plenty of charisma and credentials but failed to reverse a history of turbulence that included staff shortages and an overwhelming caseload.
Lately, the office has come under relentless attack from the judges of U.S. District Court, who have issued a series of opinions decrying what they view as a lack of professionalism. The opinions were put forth in important cases: a discrimination suit filed against the D.C. Department of Corrections; a suit concerning transportation needs of special education students; and litigation surrounding efforts to reform the child welfare system.
The harsh language in the opinions is reminiscent of the acidic tone that coursed through rulings issued against the District in the early 1990s, when judges took control of the child welfare system and other D.C. agencies and put them under the care of special masters and receivers. During that era, the District was ordered to pay millions of dollars in fines and penalties.
"The District of Columbia is like a spoiled child--whatever sanctions this Court imposes, the District simply cries over the punishment and then turns around and misbehaves again," wrote U.S. District Judge Royce C. Lamberth in a recent 36-page opinion. He declared that he was tired of the District's excuse-making and determined to hold its lawyers accountable.
In June, Judge Paul L. Friedman wrote that the corporation counsel's office has "made a habit of failing to respond to motions, appearing late for Court, (when it appears at all), misplacing Court orders and notices of hearings, and failing to respond timely, if at all" to requests for documents and other evidence from opposing lawyers. Friedman voiced similar complaints in another opinion that declared the office's briefs tended to be short and "unhelpful" and prone to rehashing arguments that were rejected in other cases.
Judge Thomas F. Hogan joined in last week, expressing dismay at "a culture that appears to have arisen within the Office of missed deadlines and generally mediocre lawyering. While a high caseload is part of the problem, this cannot be a complete defense to the missteps in this case or in other cases."
The cases that drew the judges' collective ire unfolded during the tenures of Ruff and Ferren, but lapses continued in recent months. Ruff and Ferren were chosen to lead the office by then-Mayor Marion Barry. Ruff, who left the office to become White House counsel, is now in private practice.
Williams has worked extensively with the District's legal community to identify candidates for the top job, according to his spokeswoman, Peggy Armstrong. She said that he is determined to recruit a high-caliber leader and that he expected to announce his choice within the next several weeks. Meanwhile, interim leader Robert Rigsby said he is making changes that will improve the management and handling of thousands of cases.
Rigsby, a six-year member of the office, is among those under consideration by the mayor. Rigsby said Friday that much of the court's criticism is warranted. He said the office's problems are deeply rooted, with 211 lawyers struggling to keep up with a constant flow of criminal and civil cases, as well as matters involving child abuse and neglect, mental health and child support. Only recently did all lawyers in the office get computers and voice mail, he said.
"I'm not trying to defend the actions in these [court] orders by any stretch of the imagination because they're indefensible," Rigsby said. "We made some mistakes. I acknowledge that. Now it's my job to correct these mistakes, keeping up with the mayor's theme of holding people accountable."
Rigsby said that one lawyer was forced out of the office because of failing to meet court orders and that others will be watched more closely. A senior management team is reviewing major cases to avoid future problems, he said.
"It's a new day, and we're here to change things," Rigsby said.
Lamberth's ruling came in a case filed by Isaiah Webb, a former D.C. Department of Corrections employee who filed suit in 1990 contending that he was denied promotions because of his race and sex. Webb also alleged that he was fired from the job in 1994 in retaliation for complaining. Lawyers for the District countered that Webb was ousted after complaints of sexual harassment.
Not until March 1997--five days before the trial was to start--did D.C. lawyers advise the judge that some key documents, including portions of Webb's personnel file, had been destroyed in routine housekeeping measures.
The judge ruled that the District's handling of the case was so outrageous that no trial was needed; he said Webb won by default. The D.C. government appealed and won sympathy from the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals, which found that Lamberth didn't demonstrate why such a drastic measure was necessary.
After reviewing the case at the appellate judges' direction, Lamberth issued a new opinion this month. Not only did he not back down, but he also criticized the appellate judges for treating the District too leniently.
Friedman's opinions explained his reasons for ordering the D.C. public school system and the D.C. government to pay more than $700,000 in fines and legal fees in a class-action lawsuit filed by families of special education students. He complained that the District's lawyers want special treatment despite a "dismal record of compliance with Court rules and Court orders."
Hogan's ruling came in the long-running litigation over the child welfare system, which he placed in a receiver's control in 1995. In this round of the dispute, the child advocates were seeking a court order to force the District to pay their legal expenses. After the District's lawyers failed to respond, Hogan ruled the District liable for $1.8 million in fees.
The corporation counsel's office asked Hogan to reconsider, saying that it should not be penalized for "excusable neglect" stemming from missed communications and administrative problems involving its lawyers. On Wednesday, Hogan agreed to revisit the subject--but only after the corporation counsel's office came forward with a list of all recent court transgressions.
The judge said he hoped the exercise would "assist the Office in identifying problems and making necessary changes so that it can better serve the District of Columbia and its citizens, as well as the courts."