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County Judges and Commissioners Association of Texas

In support of the Paxton prosecutors

Good to see.

Best mugshot ever

In an unusual step, six prosecutors and Texas’ criminal defense attorneys association have joined a continuing legal storm over how much the special prosecutors overseeing the criminal case against Attorney General Ken Paxton should get paid.

Preventing the three special prosecutors in Paxton’s case from getting paid would thwart justice, according to Bexar County District Attorney Nicholas “Nico” LaHood, Travis County District Attorney Margaret Moore, Fort Bend County District Attorney John Healey Jr., Travis County Attorney David Escamilla, former State Prosecuting Attorney Lisa McMinn and Enrico Valdez, a Bexar County assistant district attorney. The group intervened late Friday with the state Court of Criminal Appeals.

[…]

In a separate filing with the appeals court, the Texas Criminal Defense Lawyers Association argues much the same thing, saying that courts have previously ruled that proper compensation for appointed prosecutors is necessary and that the Collin County Commissioner’s Court should honor the payments to the three special prosecutors in the Paxton case.

“We’re gratified that prosecutors and defense attorneys with almost 200 years of collective experience agree how very important this case is, and that we’re entitled to the relief we seek in the Court of Criminal Appeals,” Houston attorney Brian Wice, one of the special prosecutors in the case, said in a statement Sunday.

See here and here for the background. A copy of the prosecutors’ brief is here, and the TCDLA brief is here. Friday was the deadline for all to submit documents in support of or opposition to the Fifth Court’s ruling. The Statesman adds details.

The Texas Criminal Defense Lawyers Association, in a brief filed recently with the Court of Criminal Appeals, argued that unless the ruling is reversed, it will place strict limits on legal fees, “effectively preventing the judiciary from being able to appoint qualified lawyers in difficult cases.”

“All of the gains made and all of the advances and improvements accomplished in indigent defense in Texas over the last 20 years will fall to the wayside,” the association argued. “Texas will return to the days of sleeping lawyers and otherwise unemployed insurance lawyers taking court appointments in criminal cases.”

A second brief by six current or former prosecutors — including Travis County District Attorney Margaret Moore and County Attorney David Escamilla — also urged the appeals court ruling to be overturned, arguing that it undermines the pursuit of justice in cases, like Paxton’s, where outside prosecutors are appointed after a local district attorney steps aside for a conflict of interest or similar reason.

Judges must have the discretion to set higher fees for unusual or difficult cases, they told the court.

“After all, it is often the unusual cases that require the most skilled and qualified attorneys, and these are the very attorneys who are most likely to decline the representation without adequate compensation,” said the prosecutors, who included former State Prosecuting Attorney Lisa McMinn and Fort Bend County District Attorney John Healey Jr., a Republican.

[…]

“Without the ability to pay a reasonable market rate in these rare circumstances, courts are effectively without power to fulfill their constitutional obligation,” the defense lawyers group told the Court of Criminal Appeals.

According to the brief from the Travis County prosecutors and others, the lower-court ruling also undermines the ability of court-appointed prosecutors to do a complicated and taxing job that often includes seeking warrants, handling grand juries, responding to defense motions, interviewing witnesses, reviewing evidence and preparing for trial.

In addition to discouraging qualified lawyers from serving as prosecutors, the prosecutors’ brief complained that the ruling allows politics to invade criminal justice decisions — such as in Collin County, where commissioners have voiced support for Paxton while seeking to limit payments to those prosecuting him.

“It creates a situation where the local county commissioners can effectively stop a criminal prosecution,” the brief said.

I’ve been saying a lot of these things myself, so I’m glad someone with actual legal credentials is making those arguments formally. Galveston Count and the County Judges and Commissioners Association of Texas filed briefs in support of Collin County, since all they really care about is the financial impact. I’ll say again, the state could solve this very easily by picking up the tab in these cases. It’s a small amount of money in that context, and it would avoid all these problems. Someone needs to file a bill to this effect in 2019.

Still more dedicated funds not being dedicated

I keep wondering when we’re going to discover the last dedicated fund that is not being used for its original purpose but for general revenue. All I know is that we keep finding more of them, in this case fees collected from defendants in the criminal courts.

While courts assess fines to punish defendants, in theory, the dizzying array of fees and court costs, which can reach more than $600, is meant to ensure that those who use the judicial system help pay for it. But an American-Statesman analysis shows that’s not the case.

Over the years, legislators have used tens of millions of dollars collected from criminals to fund a slew of projects, many with only the faintest connection to the courts. Texas judicial administrators estimate that 1 in every 3 dollars raised through such state fees is spent on projects outside the court system — a practice critics say amounts to an undeclared tax on the state’s poor that might violate the law. Cities and counties whose courts raise much of the state money, meanwhile, complain that their courts are drastically underfunded.

Today, court costs pay for the rehabilitation of patients with head injuries. They fund research on obesity among minority children in Houston and cover the salaries of game wardens. They support three academic centers at state universities and after-school programs for kids. And they were used to pay a private company $2 million to install cameras along the Mexico border so citizen “virtual deputies” could watch online and report illegal crossings.

Last year, elected officials raided a $20 million pot collected from criminal defendants to pay for state employee pensions.

Thanks to such maneuvering, in Texas courts, a “DNA collection fee” does not necessarily pay for DNA tests, a “breath alcohol testing fee” does not always cover breath alcohol tests, and people judged guilty of victimless crimes contribute millions of dollars every year to “victims compensation.”

“We have a ‘school crossing fee’ that nobody — nobody — can tell me what comes of it,” said state Sen. John Whitmire, chairman of the Senate Jurisprudence Committee.

Some say requiring defendants to cover so many expenses makes sense because crime creates broad social costs encompassing police work, prisons and social programs.

“Courts do not stand alone,” said Rep. Jim Jackson, R-Carrollton, chairman of the House Judiciary and Civil Jurisprudence Committee.

And nobody disputes that many of the programs are worthy of government support.

At worst, though, such under-the-radar diversions of so-called dedicated court money could be against the law. Some judges have ruled that using fees for purposes other than that for which they were collected is unconstitutional. At that point, the money is more accurately described as a general tax.

At the very least, it is dishonest for the government to tell taxpayers it is collecting money for one thing and then use it for another, said Jim Allison of the County Judges and Commissioners Association of Texas.

“If we’re not going to use a fee for a particular purpose,” he said, “we shouldn’t collect it.”

Of course, we do this all the time. See once again the System Benefit Fund that gets frozen, hunting and fishing license fee funds, the sale of specialty license plates, and red light camera funds. I’ve beaten this horse over and over again, so other than the specifics of this case – you should definitely read the story for the details – there’s nothing new here. The budget is all sleight of hand and misdirection because the Lege is desperate to avoid having to confront the real problems, our tax system is screwed up, and people are paying for things they’re not getting. Same story, different dedicated fund. Grits has more.

SCOTUS redistricting briefs

Opening briefs for the SCOTUS hearing on Texas redistricting were filed yesterday – you can see them here. The State of Texas is going long – Michael Li explains.

The State of Texas asks the Supreme Court to let the state use the maps passed by the Texas Legislature for the 2012 election cycle, citing now tight election deadlines.

Texas’ 2012 elections have already been delayed by agreement of the two major political parties. Even the deadlines contained in that carefully crafted agreement, however, are rapidly approaching. Candidates for office need to know the borders of the districts in which they will be running. Voters need to know who their candidates will be. Election officials need to print and mail absentee and overseas ballots. And, in order for the primaries to go forward on April 6, 2012, as agreed to by the political parties, usable redistricting maps must be in place by February 1, 2012. Especially for the presidential primaries, any further delays will significantly diminish the role of the nation’s second-largest State in choosing the parties’ presidential candidates.

In light of these exigencies, there simply does not appear to be enough time to remand the case and allow the district court to craft yet another batch of interim maps for the upcoming elections. Accordingly, this Court should vacate the interim orders and remand to the district court with instructions to impose Texas’ legislatively enacted plan as the interim plan while preclearance is pending.

The state’s request is almost certain to draw sharp rebukes from plaintiff groups, contending that the relief sought by the state, if granted, would essentially gut section 5 preclearance and reward states for going slow.

SCOTUSblog goes into more detail. Of course, as Matt Angle pointed out, the reason we’re up against a tight schedule is because the Republicans who controlled the redistricting process took their sweet time, and chose the least swift option, at every step. One could argue, as the plaintiffs have, that keeping the San Antonio maps would also accomplish the goal of minimizing the work that needs to be done by elections administrators to get ready for the primaries, without incinerating the Voting Rights Act. That’s what the state is aiming for, to be sure, and there’s a non-trivial chance they’ll get it. I don’t know how to estimate the chances of it.

Speaking of the schedule and the election admins, they’re already sounding the alarm.

Texas counties say the April 3 primary election date won’t work.

In papers filed in federal court this afternoon, the officials who actually administer the state’s elections say that date — agreed to by the Democratic and Republican parties and ordered by a panel of federal judges in San Antonio — creates an impossible situation for them.

[…]

In their legal briefs, the Conference of Urban Counties, the County Judges and Commissioners Association of Texas, and the Texas Association of Counties said they agree that all of the primaries should be held on the same day, but object to the date chosen by the political parties:

Despite agreement with the unified primaries, the County Organizations believe the Order issued in these consolidated cases on December 16, 2011 imposes on counties requirements that (1) are impossible to comply with, or that will be extremely difficult and expensive to comply with, if compliance is physically possible; and (2) may lead to voter confusion and disenfranchisement.

They said they’re basing that position on conferences with several counties of various sizes, from Harris, the state’s most populous county, all the way down to Shelby, with its 25,400 residents.

The court based the April 3 date on having a map in place by Feb. 1. But the counties say that wouldn’t leave them enough time. The court would give them only two weeks to prepare voter registration certificates that take six to seven weeks to prepare, the groups said.

“If voter registrars are required to mail inaccurate voter registration certificates in order to meet the deadline set by the Court, there is likely to be much confusion among voters. And voter confusion leads to voter disenfranchisement,” they wrote.

Isn’t this fun? I just have no idea what’s going to happen. Everything about this year is unprecedented. I don’t know what to expect.