Taxpayers pay huge bills for private lawyers

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

Critics say such figures highlight a system that is both unnecessarily expensive and deprives penniless defendants of their just commotion in court. County public defenders make an average annual salary of $115,000, according to the county officer overseeing them.

Here are three findings from the study:

The county pays enormous sums to private attorneys to represent impoverished defendants.

Harris County taxpayers spent $60 million to pay the bill for private attorneys who accepted court dates last year. Nearly 100 of these attorneys made more than $200,000 last year; Eight attorneys earned more than $400,000.

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The $1 million payment made to Ortiz is a record high in all of Texas — at least since the state began storing data on court dates a few years ago.

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

More than 60 attorneys received taxpayer money last year for their work on more than 200 crime cases. Eleven lawyers have been paid to work on more than 300 misdemeanors.

A 2015 study funded by TIDC concluded that attorneys can only adequately handle a maximum of 128 felonies or 226 misdemeanors per year.

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

Experts agree that many attorneys in Harris County and across Texas are handling too many destitute defense cases. But some interested parties see it differently.

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

Jed Silverman, president of the Harris County Criminal Attorneys’ Association, first told the Houston Chronicle that he wasn’t concerned about the high caseload of some attorneys. He pointed out that none of the highest-paid lawyers have been publicly punished by prosecutors.

After the Chronicle inquiry was posted online Friday morning, Silverman said he had heard from many HCDLA members and called the Chronicle to make various comments on behalf of the association.

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“It’s hard to imagine an attorney in these types of cases even remembering a client’s name,” Silverman said. “It’s wrong, it’s offensive to the average person off the street, and it calls into question whether or not these defendants have effective counsel support.”

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

With case numbers as high as those reported in Harris County, Fickman said, “quite a few people are not going to get the representation to which they are entitled.”

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