Houston Matters

Reporter Discusses Story on Private Attorneys Getting Many Juvenile Cases in Harris County

The Texas Tribune’s Neena Satija found there might be 10 to 15 lawyers “who are taking on a caseload that experts would say it’s too high.”

Neena Satija, an investigative reporter with The Texas Tribune and Reveal, discussed on Houston Matters Thursday a story she has written regarding the large number of cases private attorneys are getting assigned by Harris County’s three juvenile district courts, as opposed to more cases being sent to the county’s Public Defender’s Office.

Satija’s story focuses on the seven most appointed attorneys on juvenile cases –combining family court cases with cases regarding felonies, misdemeanors  and violations of probation—, but she thinks it’s fair to say that “there’s probably ten to fifteen, if not more, who are taking on a caseload that experts would say it’s too high.”

Satija noted that the Public Defender’s Office doesn’t work on family court cases and the staff attorneys are limited to 200 cases per year, but underlined that “they’re actually well below that limit” considering that the public defender with the highest workload of this kind had 141 cases last year.

Public Defender’s Office

The Public Defender’s Office says they could work on more cases, Satija explained. “There is a sense that, you know, the Office has enough staff and has the budget to represent more kids who need a lawyer if the courts were to give them those cases and that that’s not happening.”

Oliver Sprott is the only lawyer who talked on-the-record for the story. He told Satija he works very hard and that “clients often ask for him.”

Satija explained Jay Jenkins, a lawyer with the reform-minded advocacy group Texas Criminal Justice Coalition, considers that, in Satija’s words, there is a “system of cronyism going, of potentially pay-to-play where attorneys are getting appointments, which can help them make a living, in exchange for campaign contributions to the judges.”

Another lawyer who works on cases assigned by the juvenile district courts told Satija that “she was actually advised by another private lawyer that the best way to do well on this career in juvenile law in Harris County is to contribute to judges campaigns.”

Judges’ reactions

But the judges the reporter communicated with, specifically Judge Michael Schneider and Judge Glenn Devlin, deny there is such pay-to-play system. “They say they actually have nothing to do with the appointments, it’s their staff and their staff wouldn’t be able to looking at things like campaign donations,” Satija noted.

The judges also argued that the Public Defender’s Office had an attorney go on medical leave last year and they asked to be not assigned cases for a few weeks, although Satija thinks it’s hard to see how that would fully explain why they received less cases than private attorneys.

Satija also underlined that Judge Devlin has publicly criticized the Public Defender’s Office, so there seems to be a “distrust” of the Public Defender’s Office “coming from at least some of the judges.”

Share