When members of Congress were voting on a 1989 savings and loan bailout bill, they may not have intended that a San Diego homeowner with a beef against a builder would have to travel to Washington for justice, or that a lawsuit about Houston flea spray be litigated here -- and here only.

But that's exactly what Congress mandated.

Confusion about the wording of last year's Financial Institutions Reform, Recovery and Enforcement Act has resulted in a small flood of run-of-the-mill disputes and personal injury lawsuits into federal court here, much to the dismay of local judges and litigants across the country.

The 1989 law created an agency called the Resolution Trust Corporation to take over financially troubled savings and loan firms. If a thrift had been involved in a lawsuit, under the law the agency could move the suit to federal court.

But federal court where? One paragraph of the law says generally that federal courts -- plural -- have jurisdiction over those lawsuits. But two paragraphs down, another provision says that the resolution agency must move the lawsuits here -- to U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia.

So far, according to Michael Tucci, senior counsel with the agency, a half-dozen federal judges across the country have interpreted the law to say that any time the agency wants to move a case into federal court, it has to move it here.

Up to now, 72 lawsuits have been transferred to federal court here. But there are 60,000 suits nationwide involving defunct S&Ls -- if only tangentially. Officials say many of those could end up in Washington -- not a cheerful prospect for judges here.

"The fact that {a small number} are there right now is pretty small, considering what's coming," Tucci said. "I couldn't even venture a guess."

The impact here -- especially on civil cases -- could be significant. Already, judges say they are so swamped with criminal drug cases that civil cases languish for months on their dockets. An infusion of civil cases could clog court calendars more.

Tucci knows that the quirky wording of the 1989 law is causing problems out in the hinterland, as well as among judges here.

"I'd be a fool to think {judges and litigants} are happy," he said. "But we've been given a law to work with, and we work with it the best way we can."

News of the confusion came as a surprise to Barbara Timmer, general counsel for the House Banking Committee, who helped draft the law.

"We were quite surprised to hear that this was an issue," she said this week. The two paragraphs at issue, she said, were intended to give Resolution Trust Corporation lawyers a choice of which federal court to move a case to, not to limit them to federal court in Washington.

U.S. District Judge Stanley S. Harris has asked the Administrative Office of the Courts to consider asking the law's sponsors to amend its wording. A spokeswoman for the administrative office, Cathy Ball, said the office is sympathetic, but it is unclear what can be done. Timmer said she knows of no such pending legislation.

In the meantime, lawsuits wash up in U.S. District Court here like bodies on a beach, far-flung detritus of a broken-up S&L somewhere else. There was, for instance, a wrongful termination lawsuit filed in Minnesota state court by a former bank vice president in Fergus Falls that somehow found its way here to the desk of U.S. District Judge Thomas Hogan.

"All of the primary parties are located in Minnesota," Hogan wrote in a recent order in the case. "All the witnesses are located in Minnesota. All of the wrongful employment actions took place in Minnesota. In fact, the Court can think of no reason to keep the case here."

Neither could the plaintiff in that case, Peter R. Piekarski, whose case against the Home Owners Savings Bank was halfway through being tried in Otter Tail County District Court when the Resolution Trust Corporation intervened.

Piekarski had won a court ruling that the bank was at fault in his firing, but before the Minnesota judge could rule on the issue of damages, the government took over the bank. Acting to put the bank into receivership, the resolution agency plucked the lawsuit out of Otter Tail County District Court in mid-trial and moved it here.

"We were flabbergasted," Piekarski said. "I couldn't believe it even after they said it."

After a hearing here last summer -- Piekarski's first trip to Washington in 26 years -- the resolution agency consented to have the case moved back to federal court in Minnesota.

Meanwhile, lawyer David Prince and his clients haven't been so lucky. Prince represents residents of an apartment complex in Houston who have sued the complex's managers and the S&L that owns it for allegedly spraying the pesticide chlordane in their apartments to rid them of fleas.

Just as the case was about to go to trial in Harris County District Court in Houston, the thrift, Westwood Savings and Loan of Los Angeles, was taken over by the government. In August, the Resolution Trust Corporation was appointed as conservator. Shortly after that, Prince discovered that his local personal injury case had moved to Washington.

"It's a real hardship on people," he said. "It's unrealistic that they're going to get on planes and buses and come up to the District of Columbia . . . . A lot of these people don't even have the money to go to a local doctor."

The Resolution Trust Corporation's Tucci said that his agency is happy in many instances to have cases heard in federal courts elsewhere in the country, but that the 1989 law requires the agency to move the cases to federal court here before that can be done. In other instances, he said, the RTC would rather try a case here.

"In some cases that's terribly inconvenient, and in some cases it's not," he said. "We look at each one on a case-by-case basis."

Adding to the confusion is that the agency makes a practice of hiring local law firms. So far, those firms take different points of view on whether it's better to try their cases in Washington, in a federal court closer to home or in the state courts where the cases started.

Tucci acknowledges that means the resolution agency winds up taking inconsistent points of view on different lawsuits, but he says that is due to the staggering number of S&L lawsuits.

"The public has to understand that we're under a tremendous amount of strain here," he said. "We have a lot of new people who haven't been on the job for very long, trying to manage a lot of outside counsel who haven't been on the job for very long."

That's little comfort to plaintiffs and their lawyers. Attorneys for investors suing an Illinois financial institution summed up why some of its former executives might have wanted the case moved here: "The speed and alacrity of certain defendants to join the issues here speak of their desire to be as far away as possible from the 800 noteholders in Illinois."