Court-Appointed Attorneys in Harris County Take On Massive Caseloads

Criminal defense attorney Joshua Hill was going to trying something new this year. Rather than spend his time caught up in the business side of things at an office, Hill was going to “lawyer” around the clock. The former mixed martial arts coach liked the idea of “putting his nose to the grindstone” at the courthouse, where he would always have people to fight for, rather than chasing down skittish clients.

Hill spent the first half of 2014 at Harris County Criminal Court Number 5, taking on court-appointed cases doled out by the presiding judge every day of the week, except Wednesdays. He spent the second half of the year working court-appointed cases five days a week. Most of his cases were misdemeanors.

The tryout was a disaster. “That case load had me unable to retain clients, unable to take on more than a couple felony appointed cases, unable to make any money in my practice. It took up all my weekends and nights,” Hill said. He finished the court-appointed cases he had been assigned for the year and made $67,100, but it wasn’t an experience he planned on repeating.

Hill was appointed 736 misdemeanor cases and 22 felony cases in 2014, totaling 759 cases — the fifth-most appointed cases assigned to any Harris County indigent defense attorney that year. According to data published in a study by the Texas Indigent Defense Commission in April, he is far from alone: Last year, 62 indigent-defense attorneys assumed more than the recommended number of misdemeanor cases, and 78 had more than the recommended number of felony cases. (There was some overlap between the two categories: Jeanie Dickey, for example, was paid $124,020 for a record-breaking total of 969 cases that year, with 528 misdemeanor cases and 441 felony cases).

Harris County seems to fall somewhere in the middle of the spectrum: In Bexar County, the maximum number of cases for any indigent defense attorney was 411. In Dallas County, 11 attorneys saw upwards of 1,000 cases each.

Cary Lynn Higginbotham, who took on a whopping 829 cases last year (earning $147,911 for 645 misdemeanor cases and 184 felony cases), told the Press that her caseload (which is double the recommended number of misdemeanor cases and between three and four times the recommended number of felony cases) isn’t too much to handle. “All my energy goes into the cases that I’m appointed,” she insisted. When asked how much time she spends, on average, per case, Higginbotham was unable to provide an estimate. “I don’t know how to answer that,” she said.

The data troubles Harris County Chief Public Defender, Alex Bunin. “You could be the best lawyer in town, and there’s simply not enough time in the day to do that many cases. There’s only enough time to read the offense report, discuss the case with the prosecutor and come to a plea agreement. Once you take on too much, you’re shortchanging your clients.”

Hill said that when he was flying through misdemeanor cases last year, it was partly because a significant portion of his clients wanted to plead out fast. “Four out of seven new cases were pleaded out because people wanted that,” he said. “They’d say, ‘My family needs me. I’ll lose my job.’ That’s quick work, and ultimately, it’s their decision to take the deal or not.”

Today, the Harris County Public Defender’s Office, which was established five years ago, only receives about 9 percent of all available felony cases. Attorneys there are bound by firm maximum caseload rules that are based upon a 1973 standard established by the National Advisory Commission on Criminal Justice Standards. A lawyer there can only take on up to 150 felonies per year, or 350 misdemeanors per year. “We don’t exceed those numbers, and so our lawyers are not as overworked as some of the assigned council are,” said Bunin.

Bunin believes that something can, and should, be done to change the way cases are assigned to indigent-defense attorneys. “Implementing caseload maximums could change it. I think a lot of people believe in it. I’m not sure when it will happen.”

See below for a full list of lawyers and their appointed caseloads in Harris County:

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Zoë Kirsch