Monday, August 19, 2019

Judges' 'unchecked power' to blame for high TX indigent defense caseloads

"Unchecked power" of and "conflict of interests" by local judges are the biggest barriers to reforming Texas' indigent defense system, reported Neena Satija, writing for the Texas Tribune and Texas Monthly. Go read the whole thing, excerpts won't do it justice.

Neena began this feature when working for the Trib, but was hired by the Washington Post in the meantime, so Grits had feared it might never come out. But it was worth the wait. Using Texas' database of attorney caseloads for defendants with appointed counsel, she explored how these high caseloads pressure attorneys to cut corners in ways that harm clients. She documented multiple instances of judges retaliating against defense attorneys for representing clients aggressively by refusing to appoint them in the future, or even handing off their cases to other lawyers.

Unstated in this story, but key to understanding the motivations at play: The two biggest sources of campaign contributions for local criminal-law judges are defense attorneys and the bail-bond industry. Lawyers give money hoping for appointments to cases and goodwill when they're in a judge's courtroom, while bail bondsmen want all sorts of little favors (like when judges make behind-the-scenes debt-forgiveness decisions about whether bond agents must pay up after someone absconds).

Two important justice reforms - creation of public defender offices and elimination of money bail - amount to indirect attacks on campaign contributions for judges. Without them, there is no incumbent advantage. That's the main, unspoken reason you see judges fighting both of those reforms.

For more background on the attorney-caseload issues at play in this story, see this interview with then-Texas-Fair-Defense-Project Executive Director Becky Bernhardt after the caseload recommendations came out in 2015.

To look up attorney caseloads in your own county, here's the link to the Texas Indigent Defense Commission database. No other state has data as good as Texas' on this topic, and Neena's story absolutely couldn't have been written without it.

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