Federal judges have reprimanded the District's lawyers at least 52 times during the past three years for missing court deadlines, failing to show up at hearings, making faulty arguments and engaging in other unprofessional conduct, according to a report compiled by the city's legal team.
The chronicle of mistakes was prepared under orders from U.S. District Judge Thomas F. Hogan, who became so exasperated with the District's attorneys that he demanded the report for the city's own good. Hogan said he hoped the exercise would help officials identify problems and make changes.
The report covers instances since January 1997 in which D.C. lawyers were chastised or reprimanded for violating the rules and procedures of federal court or other actions drawing judicial wrath. It comes within a week of Mayor Anthony A. Williams's naming Robert R. Rigsby as the District's corporation counsel in charge of a 200-lawyer office that handles all of the city's legal business. Rigsby has vowed to overhaul the office, and the report blamed an unidentified lawyer who recently was dismissed for 14 lapses.
"The mayor preaches accountability, accountability and accountability," Rigsby said yesterday. "One instance of this is too many. . . . We're not going to make excuses. We're going to address these problems."
Rigsby said he already has tightened controls to improve quality by requiring that supervisors review all outgoing work and appointing a task force of senior lawyers to handle the most complex cases.
Even getting the report to Hogan on time proved taxing for the D.C. lawyers. Within the past few weeks, supervisors scrambled to contact scores of current and former lawyers and had them comb through old files. The report was presented to the court on Friday, the day it was due.
According to the report, D.C. lawyers have made gaffes in an array of cases, from the tangle of litigation surrounding the transportation needs of special education students to suits filed by disgruntled jail inmates. It shows that 18 of the federal court's 25 judges have admonished attorneys.
D.C. government lawyers missed court-imposed deadlines 23 times, skipped court appearances four times, sent substitutes three times and arrived late on at least four occasions. Lawyers also were faulted for not sharing evidence with opposing counsel and engaging in apparent delaying tactics.
Some episodes were seemingly trivial: In one case, a judge scolded an assistant corporation counsel for looking at the clock too many times.
But the office frequently must race against time. The report notes that more than 700 new federal lawsuits were filed against the District during the period covered. For years, the corporation counsel's office has struggled with an enormous caseload. Besides working at the federal courthouse, D.C. lawyers must appear at D.C. Superior Court and administrative hearings, and they often must shuttle between two or more proceedings on the same day.
Hogan issued his order in September as part of the litigation over the chronically troubled child-welfare system, which he placed in a receiver's control in 1995. Child advocates had sought a court order requiring the District to pay their legal expenses. Lawyers for the city failed to respond, and Hogan ruled that the District was liable for $1.8 million in fees.
The corporation counsel's office asked Hogan to reconsider, saying it should not be penalized for "excusable neglect" stemming from missed communications and administrative problems. Hogan agreed to revisit the issue, but only if the District came up with the list of past transgressions.
Rigsby, who had headed the office on an interim basis since July, succeeded John M. Ferren, who resigned to return to a judgeship at the D.C. Court of Appeals. In recent weeks, Rigsby met informally with Hogan and other judges to seek their suggestions about potential reforms. Numerous judges were on hand when Williams announced Rigsby's selection last week, and some said they were impressed with Rigsby's eagerness to make changes.