Sunday, April 01, 2018

NY Times story on Galveston indigent defense ripe for other reporters to localize

In the New York Times last week (March 29), former Austin Statesman editor Richard Oppell authored an article that could resonate throughout Texas indigent defense systems, as it describes a practice that's widespread, not remotely limited to the judge or attorney in Galveston at the center of the story. Here's the heart of the allegations:
A criminal defense lawyer in Galveston, Tex., says he was pulled off cases defending poor clients because he spent too much time on them and requested funds to have their charges investigated. 
Needless to say, his clients were not the ones complaining. Instead, it was the judge, Jack Ewing, who appoints lawyers for those in his courtroom who cannot afford them. “You overwork cases,” Judge Ewing told the lawyer, Drew Willey, according to excerpts from a recorded conversation cited in the lawsuit. 
Though an estimated four of every five criminal defendants in the United States use court-appointed lawyers or public defenders, many of the nation’s indigent defense systems have been criticized as desperately inadequate, leading to false guilty pleas and overincarceration. 
Lawyers who represent the poor can be required to juggle hundreds of cases at a time, accept pay far lower than the market rate, or take cases for which they have little experience. 
This new case, though, exposes another potential problem: Indigent defense lawyers often get their assignments from the judges in whose courtroom they appear. This discourages a robust defense, experts say, and leads to an emphasis on resolving cases quickly. 
The tensions may be familiar to lawyers, but they are rarely so candidly aired as in this lawsuit, filed in federal court last week and bolstered by parts of a recorded conversation with the judge.
Grits has heard similar stories from defense attorneys for as long as I've paid attention to the Texas justice system, including attorneys stiffed not just for time worked but also for investigators' fees or even forensic services.

Which brings me to this observation for Texas-based reporters: This is a national story which can be localized. This isn't the only Texas jurisdiction, by any stretch, in which judges reduced pay requests from lawyers as excessive when they tried to put on a zealous defense. There are also stories out there of lawyers losing out on appointments because judges considered them a tad too zealous. Attorneys who make a living representing indigent clients must routinely take on caseloads well beyond bar-association-recommended guidelines in order to pay for a mortgage, middle-class lifestyle, and law-school debts. This story explains why, and it's not just happening in Galveston.

So, for my reporter friends on the local courthouse beat: There's a courthouse paper trail on cases where judges reduce attorneys' fees, which a local attorney who takes indigent cases or the court coordinator can help you identify. Then, one simply calls up the attorneys to ask why they requested the additional pay. Follow up with calls to the judges in question to get their side of the story; the county judge so s/he can lodge a complaint about unfunded mandates from the state; then make a call to indigent defense experts like the Texas Fair Defense Project or Civil Rights Corps (the two nonprofits that sued over Harris County's unconstitutional bail practices), and you've just localized a national story.

Indeed, there's a small mountain of data, including lawyer-specific payment information, available from the Texas Indigent Defense Commission. Once you dig into these topics, there's a lot of material for an enterprising reporter with which to work.

So thanks, Richard Oppell, for exposing a statewide problem in the form of this Galveston anecdote. Now it's up to Texas reporters to pick up the baton and expose the same practices in their own jurisdictions. The story's there to be had, and "It would make some local judges mad" isn't a good enough reason not to report it.


Steven Michael Seys said...

This is not a new phenomenon. I am surprised that it wasn't a national story forty years ago

Anonymous said...

Yeah, my son was sentenced to 9 years in TDC for a first-time felony offence [served 5 years + change] for lack of a zealous defense.

Criminal justice as it exists now in Texas is an oxymoron.

Anonymous said...

Not enough of us Texans get our opinions from the New York Times.

Anonymous said...

Not enough Texas Judges read the New York Times. Given that this problem has existed for decades, we can probably conclude that not enough Texas Judges read, period.

Anonymous said...

Not enough Texas Judges read the Boston Globe either.