Congress may give final approval this week to legislation to allow the D.C. small-claims court to hear cases involving up to $2,000, rather than the current $750 limit, and to require that retired D.C. judges be reviewed for fitness before they are assigned to hear and decide cases.
The Senate approved a measure with those provisions Friday by voice vote without debate and sent it to the House. The House has approved both items but on separate bills. If the House approves the Senate version this week, it would go to the president for signature.
"We would try to find a way" to get the bill approved, said Robert Brauer, a staff aide to Rep. Ronald V. Dellums (D-Calif.), chairman of the House District Committee. Congress is hoping to adjourn this week, however, and it may be difficult to bring it up so late in the session, he said.
Raising the dollar limit in the small-claims branch of D.C. Superior Court would help ease the caseload of the civil court and would make it easier for citizens to bring a case to court without the cost of hiring a lawyer, proponents of the change say. The $750 limit was set in 1970.
"Many businesses and individuals have legitimate small-claim cases that now have to go through the formal court process," rather than the simpler small-claims procedures, said Samuel F. Harahan, director of the Council for Court Excellence, a local nonprofit group.
The caseload of the small-claims court declined from about 30,000 to about 24,000 between 1973 and 1982, at a time when the caseload was rising dramatically in other areas, Harahan said.
The increase in the small-claims limit is supported by Mayor Marion Barry and the Washington Bar Association, which said it would help clear a backlog in civil cases that now averages more than two years to resolve.
Retired judges now can be given cases to hear and decide by the chief judge of the D.C. Superior Court or the D.C. Court of Appeals but the judges are not reviewed for fitness by the D.C. Commission on Judicial Disabilities and Tenure. Under the bill, they would have to be deemed fit before becoming senior judges to continue to serve the court and would be reviewed every two years.
Harahan said this will mean the adequacy of a senior judge will be determined independently and the chief judges will have a "buffer" between them and any judge who is unfit to serve but asks to continue to hear cases.