Taxpayers foot huge bills for private lawyers


Harris County has struggled for decades to ensure that low-income people accused of crimes get good legal representation. A lack of funding is partially to blame, but it’s not the only factor. According to a Houston Chronicle investigation last week, the county paid private attorney Jeanie Ortiz $1 million last year to represent hundreds of indigent defendants, according to data from the Texas Indigent Defense Commission

Critics say such numbers highlight a system that is both unnecessarily expensive and robs indigent defendants of their fair shake in court. Public defenders in the county make an average annual salary of $115,000, according to the county official who supervises them.

Here are three takeaways from the investigation: 

The county pays private attorneys enormous amounts of money to represent indigent defendants.

Harris County taxpayers spent $60 million footing the bill for private attorneys who took court appointments last year. Almost 100 of those attorneys earned more than $200,000 last year; eight attorneys earned more than $400,000.

RELATED STORY: Harris County judges criticized over pace of court-appointed lawyer reform

The $1 million paid to Ortiz is a record high across Texas – at least since the state first began keeping data on court appointments several years ago. 

Dozens of attorneys were paid to handle far more cases than state guidelines recommend. 

More than 60 attorneys received taxpayer dollars for their work on more than 200 felony cases last year. Eleven attorneys were paid for working on more than 300 misdemeanors. 

A 2015 study funded by TIDC concluded that attorneys could only reasonably handle at most 128 felonies or 226 misdemeanors a year.

READ MORE: No Defense. How the Unchecked Power of Judges is Hurting Poor Texans

Many Harris County attorneys handled hundreds of both types of cases. Jeanie Ortiz, for instance, earned $1 million for her work on nearly 400 felonies and more than 200 misdemeanors. She did not respond to multiple requests from the Chronicle for comment. 

Experts agree that many attorneys in Harris County and across Texas are handling too many indigent defense cases. But some stakeholders feel differently. 

During a recent public meeting, two members of TIDC’s board – including its longtime chair, Texas Court of Criminal Appeals’ Chief Justice Sharon Keller – said the guidelines that were developed through the 2015 study are actually too low. 

Jed Silverman, the president of the Harris County Criminal Defense Lawyers’ Association, initially told the Houston Chronicle that the high caseloads for some attorneys didn’t concern him. He pointed out that none of the top-paid attorneys had been publicly disciplined by the state bar.

After the Chronicle investigation published online Friday morning, Silverman said he heard from many HCDLA members and called the Chronicle to offer different comments on behalf of the Association. 

FULL INVESTIGATION: Harris County spent $60M on court-appointed lawyers with big caseloads. Critics call it a waste

“It’s hard to fathom a lawyer even remembering a client’s name when you’ve got these kinds of caseloads,” Silverman said. “It’s wrong, it’s offensive to your average person off the street, and it calls into question whether or not these accused people are getting effective assistance of counsel.” 

Robb Fickman, a former president of HCDLA, added that “the majority of lawyers I know” share that position. “A lawyer should interview their client. They should review the police reports. If the client has a defense, they should investigate the defense.” 

With caseloads as high as have been reported in Harris County, Fickman said, “quite a few people are not going to get the representation that they’ve been entitled to.” 

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