Mayor Anthony A. Williams named Robert Rigsby as the D.C. corporation counsel yesterday, putting the longtime government lawyer over an office that for years has been plagued by a tight budget, staff shortages, an overwhelming workload and stinging criticism and mandates from judges.
Rigsby, who was interim chief for five months, said he will make the city's lawyers more accountable to the courts, government and public. "There will be more changes in this office," he said moments after his appointment was announced.
The District's law office, with nearly 200 lawyers and roughly 400 support personnel, has been without a permanent leader since the resignation last spring of John M. Ferren, who returned to a judgeship at the D.C. Court of Appeals. A former federal prosecutor, Rigsby, 39, worked as a supervisor under Ferren and Ferren's predecessor, Charles F.C. Ruff.
Williams (D) said he chose Rigsby after a protracted nationwide search largely because of the way he exerted leadership in recent months. Rather than act as a caretaker, Rigsby aggressively met with judges and outside advisers and began overhauling the office.
"We can do a lot," Rigsby said. "We have a lot of good people. We have a lot of great lawyers, a lot of ambitious lawyers in this office."
Rigsby has reassigned some attorneys to geographic areas throughout the District to deal more directly with issues surrounding abandoned buildings and other neighborhood nuisances. He also has recruited a high-profile network of outsiders for direction, including Ruff, former U.S. attorney Joseph E. diGenova and former Justice Department official Jamie Gorelick.
The corporation counsel's office advises and represents more than 90 city agencies in a wide variety of litigation and handles child abuse and neglect proceedings, juvenile prosecutions, child support and mental health matters and misdemeanor, traffic and regulatory offenses.
Although much of their work is carried out in a quiet and competent manner, the District's lawyers repeatedly have been chastised by judges for missing court deadlines and court appearances and recycling legal arguments even after they were resoundingly rejected.
U.S. District Judge Royce C. Lamberth likened the District to a "spoiled child" in a recent opinion involving a race and sex discrimination case, declaring: "Whatever sanctions this Court imposes, the District simply cries over the punishment and then turns around and misbehaves again."
Ferren and Ruff, appointees of then-Mayor Marion Barry, had won praise throughout the legal community for settling some complex cases, boosting the number of city lawyers and improving everyday working conditions. Rigsby said he intends to build on that work.
Soon after Lamberth rendered his opinion, Rigsby went to visit him at the courthouse, seeking ideas. He had similar meetings with other judges. Lamberth and numerous other judges were on hand for the mayor's announcement yesterday.
Before joining the corporation counsel's office six years ago, Rigsby was a federal prosecutor in Alexandria and a lawyer in the U.S. Army Judge Advocate General Corps. His wife, Anna Blackburne-Rigsby, is a hearing commissioner in D.C. Superior Court and has been nominated for a judgeship.
CAPTION: After his appointment as D.C. corporation counsel was announced, Robert Rigsby said he will make changes in the city's law office. Judges regularly have criticized the city's lawyers.