SUPERIOR COURT Judge Tim Murphy, angered by lawyers who are late for trials, is using a startling method to make sure they get there on time: he sentences those who are late to jail for contempt of court. One lawyer was sentenced to four weekends in jail for being an hour late. A second lawyer was sentenced to five weekends in jail for being 10 minutes late, though the judge later suspended that sentence and gave the lawyer one year's probation. Other lawyers have been held in contempt of court, but have not been sentenced. Judge Murphy says he was unsuccessful in getting the bar's disciplinary board to reprimand lawyers who are late, so he has had to resort to the jail sentences.

The Superior Court Trail Lawyers Association is threatening to strike over the judge's actions. The lawyers say the jail sentences are unfair because, given the organization of the court system, lawyers are inevitably going to be late. In superior court, a lawyer can be assigned to several cases that are scheduled to come before different judges at 9 a.m. Some judges set all trails for that time so they will be able to determine early in the day which cases are ready to be tried and which will have to be continued. The idea is to get the court's business efficiently organized and moving quickly. But this can obviously make scheduling problems for the lawyers.

The judges run the courts, controlling the system for assigning lawyers to cases and setting trail dates and times. Since the best interests of the public are served when competent lawyers appear in court on time, it is important that the court's timetable -- no matter how precisely organized -- allow for some flexibility. That way, judges can work with lawyers to handle as many cases as quickly as possible. Flexibility would also reveal which lawyers are victims of tight scheduling and which are in fact repeatedly late for no good reason. The jail sentences are just a short-term ploy. They reflect on the disorganization of the court system more than they do on the lawyers themselves.