More than 100 lawyers who represent indigent defendants at D.C. Superior Court went on strike and set up picket lines in front of the courthouse yesterday to protest pay rates that have not been raised in 13 years.
The trial lawyers, who represent about 60 different indigent clients a day, said they are willing to continue their strike for several months until the city raises their pay from $30 to $55 per hour for each appearance they make in court, and from $20 to $45 for each hour of work outside the court.
The strikers, members of the Superior Court Trial Lawyers Association, have complained that they are forced to take on too many cases in order to make a living, and that lawyers for private firms make several times the fees they are requesting.
Courthouse operations appeared to run smoothly yesterday despite the lawyers' job action, aided in part by a lull in criminal activity Monday night that officials attributed to the televised Washington Redskins-Dallas Cowboys football game.
While the regular court attorneys staged their rally outside, other attorneys from some of the city's most prestigious firms, many of whom have no experience in criminal defense work, were called in by the city's Public Defender Service to represent newly arrested defendants.
The striking lawyers said they will continue to represent clients they accepted before the strike but that they will not take new clients.
Earlier talks with Mayor Marion Barry and members of the City Council to raise the fees have been unsuccessful. Last week Barry told a gathering of trial lawyers that he sympathized with their concerns but that he could not offer any increase in fees to avert a strike.
In a regular monthly meeting with the attorneys yesterday, Superior Court Chief Judge H. Carl Moultrie I reportedly told the attorneys he could not advocate a raise for the lawyers publicly because it would conflict with his position as a judge.
Furthermore, according to association vice president Karen Dixkoskoff, who attended the meeting, Moultrie said he would not request funds for a raise in the court's budget until the City Council voted for an increase in the rates.
Court officials, who have met recently with the lawyers to discuss increases, remained virtually silent yesterday about the strike. Moultrie has denied repeated requests for an interview, and Judge Fred B. Ugast, chief of the court's criminal division, declined to comment.
"It seems that the people who have the power have chosen to ignore us," Greg Addison, one of the strike organizers, told a group of about 50 sign-waving attorneys yesterday. "This comes at a time when more money than ever has been appropriated to fight crime, but nothing for the people who are hurt most by the criminal justice system.
"This is the last straw," he said. "We can't take it anymore."
An air of bitterness pervaded the courthouse yesterday as the striking lawyers attempted to buttonhole other attorneys in the courthouse corridors and persuade them to stay away.
The Public Defender Service, a city agency, made preparations for the strike several weeks ago by calling major firms to help provide attorneys for defendants who could not afford their own.
Several firms that have agreed to provide attorneys, said that although they agree the pay rate for court-appointed lawyers is too low, they have a professional responsibility to provide representation to the poor.
"They certainly need more money. It's an outrage," said one 74-year-old attorney with the prestigious firm of Wilmer, Cutler and Pickering, who asked not to be named. "On the other hand, if you don't come down, you have a lot of young guys in jail who are going to stay in the pokey if they don't get a lawyer."
Striking lawyers were angered yesterday when court officials removed their files from the CJA office. One official said he feared the strikers might destroy documents in the files during the protest.