Is Justice Unjust to Its Go-Getters?

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Maybe Ken Starr could handle this one on his way out of town. In a case that reallyneeds an independent counsel, a Federal judge on Wednesday invited more than 12,400 current and former Justice Department lawyers to join a class-action suit worth a half billion dollars in which 200 Justice Department lawyers are suing the Justice Department for illegally cheating them out of overtime pay. The 1945 Federal Employees Pay Act, which requires overtime pay or compensatory time off if more than 40 hours are worked, has somehow never been enforced by Justice at Justice. The agency claims that overtime pay would be simply un-lawyerly (not to mention quite costly). But as life at Justice gets more and more complicated in the probe-everybody era, the assistant deputy attorneys general of the world want their money. And they’ve got the memos to make a case.

That’s right. From Microsoft to Big Tobacco to our very own government, nothing wounds a giant more reliably than some candid internal documents –- and this case is no different. Some of the uncovered memos attest to Justice’s knowledge that it was breaking the 1945 law; others point even further, to two sets of books: one for the payroll department and another for supervisors, who tallied up overtime hours as a measure of a lawyer’s efforts. The case will be defended by other Justice Department lawyers, lawyers who stand to get paid more if they lose but who nevertheless gamely claim that the 1945 law doesn’t apply to them and never has. That could be a tough argument to make in a roomful of lawyers who, for the privilege of public service, make about a third of what their private-sector counterparts do –- but are still expected to put in the hours of a first-year go-getter. As one 1998 memo from senior lawyer Fran M. Allegra put it, "If the Department continues to ignore this problem, an intrepid attorney will develop a class action on this issue and major problems will result." What about 200 intrepid attorneys?