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Washington-David Sitomer has spent his 30-year career toiling in one of the least-prestigious jobs a District of Columbia lawyer can have-defending deadbeats and delinquents in family court. Now he is in a fight to keep that job. Sitomer is battling a new policy that limits who can be appointed and paid by the family court. Until recently, that work had been open to any lawyer with a valid district law license. Sitomer is among 10 lawyers who have sued District of Columbia Superior Court judges, claiming that they improperly took away the lawyers’ clients and cases when the court adopted a more restrictive system for evaluating and picking court-appointed counsel in family cases. To these lawyers, many of whom had been receiving court-appointed work for decades, the court’s move was a personal attack that will not only keep them out of the courtroom but put some of them out of business. “This is an arrogant, top-down pattern,” Sitomer said. “These are unconstitutional procedures.” The judges, meanwhile, maintain they were just trying to improve the quality of legal representation given to the most vulnerable. The Superior Court’s family court hears cases of child abuse and neglect as well as those involving juvenile delinquency and adoption. About 800 cases involving children were filed in the family court last year, nearly all of which were handled by court-appointed lawyers, according to the court. Lawyers win early The lawyers, who are representing themselves, won an early round when U.S. District Judge Ricardo Urbina refused to dismiss their case earlier this year. The matter is now before the U.S. Circuit Court for the District of Columbia. A three-judge panel will decide whether the plaintiffs’ ability to work and be paid as court-appointed lawyers for the poor qualifies as a constitutionally protected property interest. In his March 11 ruling, Urbina cautiously stated that it might. Briefs in the case were due last week, and arguments are expected to take place early next year. Donald Verrilli, a partner at Jenner & Block who is representing the judges pro bono, said the lawyers’ claims are a stretch. “They may or may not have the expertise they claim to,” said Verrilli, co-chairman of his firm’s appellate and Supreme Court practice. “What they don’t have a right to is to be hired by the government based on that expertise.” Judge Lee Satterfield, presiding judge of the family court and one of 15 judges named as defendants in the suit, released a one-sentence statement: “We were interested, as was Congress, in ensuring that children and families before the family court be well-represented, and that taxpayer funds be well-spent.” He declined further comment. Underlying the case is a generational shift in the family law bar. Many forced out under the new system had been handling family court cases for years. Now a big chunk of that work is being turned over to younger lawyers with more impressive pedigrees. Some of the dispute was captured in a report on the family court released earlier this month by the nonprofit Council for Court Excellence. “I saw some whom I viewed as competent attorneys-who were in the practice for years, if not decades-excluded,” said a lawyer quoted in the report. “That left me with a bad impression.” Priscilla Skillman, assistant director of the council, said it is beneficial to have different groups providing representation. But the dissatisfaction with the new system among experienced family law attorneys is understandable, she says. “Some lawyers with 15 to 20 years of child-neglect practice have been supplanted by new attorneys,” said Skillman. “That predictably caused dissension. I’m not sure the court was sufficiently proactive in anticipating and mitigating the consequences of how this would appear to people whom they had been depending on for a long time.” Public criticism of the court’s handling of family cases burgeoned about five years ago, after Superior Court Judge Evelyn Queen returned a toddler to her birth mother without holding a hearing. Two weeks later, the girl was allegedly killed by her mother’s friend. Brianna Blackmond’s 2000 death caused a furor on Capitol Hill. Everyone involved in Blackmond’s case, it appeared, had done something wrong. The attorneys, the social workers, and the judges all shared blame for letting Blackmond slip through the cracks of a child welfare and court system that is supposed to protect the most defenseless. Federal lawmakers threatened to strip the district of its jurisdiction over family court proceedings, which at the time were being handled within a division of Superior Court. Instead they passed the Family Court Act of 2001, which created a family court within D.C. Superior Court. Among the law’s mandatory reforms was a requirement that the court establish standards of practice for attorneys appointed as counsel in the family court.

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