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February 18, 2014

Clarifying indigent defense in Hunt County

COMMERCE — Editor’s note: Indigent defense has become an important issue in Hunt County, specifically in the Hunt County Judge and 196th District Judge race. After conducting research at the county and state level, here is how indigent defense is handled in Hunt County.

Hunt County spent $1,967,635.97 in indigent defense in 2013, according to the Texas Indigent Defense Commission (TIDC). Of that, $1,547,664.50 was spent on attorneys’ fees. That cost was broken down as follows: $1,079,133.82 was spent on felony trial court attorney’s fees, $356,381.50 was spent on misdeamenor trial court attorney’s fees, and $74,150.00 was spent on juvenile attorney’s fees.

The county received $117,656 in 2013 in grants from the TIDC.

The rules surrounding indigent defense on the district and county court at law levels in Hunt County are established by the Hunt District and County Courts Plan, which is approved by the two district court judges, the two county court at law judges, and the county judge.

According to documentation on the TIDC website, the last time the plan was signed by the five judges was in 2010. Due to contextual errors in the plan, however, a plan was submitted by Administrative District Judge Richard Beacom in 2013. According to Beacom, that plan did not require a vote from the judges.

After the plan has been approved, the plan is submitted by the administrative district judge to the TIDC. A staff member or other judge can submit the plan to the TIDC in place of the administrative district judge, according to TIDC’s Wesley Shackelford, but the administrative district judge has to ultimately approve the submission, not the plan itself, before it is accepted by the TIDC. This is done online.

District and county courts must abide by the plan in order to receive funding from the TIDC. A second plan details how indigent defense is handled in juvenile cases.

The “Fee and Expense Payment Process” portion of the plan references a supplemental plan, approved by the four judges hearing misdemeanor criminal cases and felony criminal cases.

Those judges are the 354th District Judge, the 196th District Judge, the County Court at Law Judge No. 1 and the County Court at Law Judge No. 2. This plan sets the fee rate at which court appointed attorneys are paid by the county for representing indigent defendants.

The Hunt County Judge does not vote on the compensation of court appointed attorneys representing indigent defendants, as the Hunt County Judge does not hear misdemeanor or felony criminal cases.

However, the fee schedule is included in the overall plan that all five judges vote on. Since the supplemental plan is a standing order, there is no regular meeting to revise the rates.

According to Beacom, the last time the four judges met to discuss the fee rates was in 2010. According to an official legal opinion from Hunt County Attorney Joel Littlefield, the county judge cannot veto or amend this fee rate.

The fee rate is $100 an hour for misdemeanor and felony cases in Hunt County. In order to be eligible to be appointed by one of the four county or district judges to an indigent defender’s case, attorneys must either maintain a principal office or reside in Hunt County.

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