We must reform the disgraceful Court appointment system in Houston, Harris County Texas.
The Judges in Harris County are human beings which means, notwithstanding the robe, they can make mistakes. When a group of judges, acting in concert, implement or perpetuate an appointment system that makes something other than justice, the number one priority, change is needed. I am here to tell you, change is Needed. Not later, but now.
In Harris County, the top priority in many courts, ( not all), seems to be the size of their dockets. The judges are provided with a bar graph that shows how many pending cases they have as compared to the other judges. Many of the judges seem to take this bar graph as a rating system on how they are doing as judges. Restated: Over the last 30 years, I have observed that many of our state and county criminal court judges seem to rate themselves based on the size of their docket. Of course the size of one’s docket is relevant, but it has limited bearing on the quality of justice administered in the court. Neither a large docket, nor a small docket really says much about the fairness of the judge. Does it? Yet many of the judges seem to have embraced the shared agenda of moving cases as fast as possible in order to maintain a small docket. The judges cannot move the cases on their own. They need lawyers who are capable and willing to move cases at the rate that the judges want them moved if the judges are to maintain their desired docket sizes. Thus, these judges,( not all), seem to find lawyers who will do their biding and move cases as fast as possible.
For as long as I can remember, Favored lawyers, who are known to move cases, have always received preferential treatment when it comes to receiving state and county court appointments. By quickly moving cases, these lawyers are serving the judge’s interest in their docket. By quickly moving cases, these same lawyers are handling, what by all accounts would appear to be ridiculous case loads.
A lawyer’s duty is to zealously represent his client and to Support the United States & Texas Constitution. Nowhere in our oath as lawyers do we swear to support the “ judicial docket races”. Yet that goal seems to be encouraged by many judges. Lawyers who move cases at light speed are rewarded with mountains of cases; While lawyers who do not move cases fast enough to please some judges, are left on the sidelines.
The American Bar Association(A.B.A.) recognizes that there are only so many hours in a day. And no matter, how great a lawyer is or thinks he is, there are only so many cases a lawyer can be expected to handle. At some point, an extremely large case load, logically starts to negatively impact and impede a lawyer’s ability to provide effective assistance of counsel. The A.B.A. has suggested standards of maximum caseloads for criminal defense lawyers. The A.B.A. recommended maximum caseloads for a criminal defense lawyer handling only felonies is , no more than 150 felonies per year.
A caseload of 150 felonies a year, is by any standards a heavy caseload. That’s 150 clients to interview and 150 defenses to investigate. While most cases may end in a negotiated plea agreement, even those cases should require some work in order to get the best possible deal for the client. So no matter the outcome, whether it is a plea of guilty, a dismissal, or a trial, each case requires a certain amount of time; that is if the lawyer is attempting to provide effective assistance of counsel. No doubt, every case is different. In my three decades, I am sure I have on rare occasion had felony cases that only took a few hours and I have had felony cases that have lasted for years and taken hundreds upon hundreds of hours, even before trial.
As the recognized national standard is no more than 150 felony cases per year, why would any lawyer accept more than 150 felony appointments in a year? I can think of only one reason and its mostly green. More to the point, Why would any courts appoint any lawyer to more than 150 felony cases per year? If the judiciary, which took an oath to uphold the Constitution, is appointing lawyers to more than the recommended 150 felonies per year, isn’t it fair to ask them why they are doing that? If the intent is to provide effective assistance of counsel, then it makes no sense for the Courts to give a lawyer more than 150 felony appointments a year.
The Texas Indigent Defense Commission put together a report on juvenile, misdemeanor, and felony appointments in Harris County. The cases were disposed of in FY 2011, as noted by Harris County Justice Information Management System. (JIMS).
Statistics are by their very nature suspect. Mark Twain said, “There are lies, damned lies and statistics.” I agree with that. Nevertheless, we live in a world of statistics. Some statistics shed light on the world that we occupy. I am all for shedding light on the criminal justice system ,even if those who are in charge of the system prefer that no light be shined. With that in mind, I am again posting the Texas Indigent Defense Commission FY 2011 statistics for Harris County. You will find that list below.
I urge you to look at the list. The numbers are truly shocking. To simplify it, I have even done the math and it is indeed very, very ugly. Disgraceful, is frankly too kind a word to describe the Harris County Court Appointment system. It is far beyond disgraceful. Consider the following as just one example of this system’s ” virtues”. This system that continually victimizes the poor and minorities among us:
TEN LAWYERS HANDLED OVER 3500 FELONY CASES
In Harris County Texas, In Fiscal Year 2011, Ten (10) lawyers handled a whopping Three Thousand Five Hundred and Seventy Six (3576) Felony Cases!!!!! All of these lawyers ACCEPTED more than double the ABA recommended 150 Felony appointments a year. All of them had OVER 300 Felony cases in one year. The highest was 463 and the lowest, on this list had 306 cases. The ten lawyers handled an average of 357.6 felony cases each.
One might argue that a lawyer can provide effective assistance on 357.6 felonies per year. That is right… one might argue that. One might also argue that the moon was made of green cheese, or the earth had a caramel flavored center, or that the sun rose in the West and set in the East. Arguing something does not make it so. I am sure that those who accepted & handled more than 300 felony appointments in FY 2011, by necessity will argue that they provided effective assistance of counsel, if not outstanding counsel. Those judges that appointed these same lawyers to handle more than 300 felonies in 2011, by necessity will also argue that the lawyers did a bang up job.
In my opinion, based on my many years of experience, no lawyer can provide effective assistance of counsel on over 300 felony cases a year. The American Bar Association would appear to support my assertion.
The system is wrong and it must be changed. The disgraceful system may be seen by going to the link below.
I will stay on this issue until this very wrong system is made right. I believe it will take a change in the law to right this wrong. I believe the appointment power needs to be put in hands that are more “ neutral and detached” than those members of the Harris County Judiciary who have created and/or perpetuated this nightmare. It should not be too very hard to find some competent professionals who are more ”neutral and detached” than those who have made this nightmare a reality.
God Bless Texas. God Bless the Good People of Houston, patient as they are.
Robb Fickman, Houston.