El Paso County Commissioner asks for audit on Counsel of Judges

Monday, March 24, 2014 - 6:07pm

It's a war of numbers and words -- as an El Paso County Commissioner is questioning how much some local attorneys are being paid by the county. This debate revolves around how much private attorneys are paid to take on court appointed cases -- and who gets those cases. We first told you about this Sunday.
Those attorneys are also known as indigent defense.

County Commissioner Vince Perez wants the state to review the way the county appoints private attorneys to serve as court appointed council -- saying these attorneys receive a lot of money -- but not all lawyers have an equal shot at getting these cases.

Perez looked frustrated in executive session at Monday’s County Commissioner meeting just hours after bringing to light what he calls an uneven distribution of funds to private attorneys hired to defend those who can't afford counsel. "Often times the top 10-percent of attorneys will earn approximately half of all legal fees,” Perez, who represents Precinct 3 says.

Judge Patrick Garcia, head of the Council Of Judges acknowledges these lawyers are paid with taxpayer money, "We're being very cautious and deliberate with what we're doing,” the Judge says, "Complex cases require more time."

But says high fees sometimes can't be avoided -- especially when it comes to capital murder trials which require more time and more resources. "It might reflect that some are getting more because they are spending more time in the courtroom trying cases in front of juries."

But Perez says he’s concerned -- after the county went over budget by $1.2-million in Fiscal Year 2013. And the council of judges now wants to raise fees paid to attorneys in April. "To raise the fees in the middle of a budget year, clearly isn't in the best interest of tax payers,” Perez explains.

Commissioners will have to cut $500,000 in their budget because of the raise, Garcia acknowledges the numbers may be alarming but says lawyers here in El Paso County actually get paid less than the average in the Lone Star State. "When you have a person's life in your hand, you want to feel competent to effectively represent those people,” Garcia says.
No official action was taken by County Commissioners. But Vince Perez will be handing off this information to the Texas Indigent Defense Commission or TIDC. This department may take further action by auditing El Paso’s Council Of Judges.

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