Whatever your answer, Collin County Commissioners Court wants to pay less.
Collin County officials want to cap the cost of prosecuting Attorney General Ken Paxton at a fraction of the previously discussed price tag of $285,000, and are questioning whether taxpayer funds can be used to pay for the trial.
The Collin County Commissioners Court on Tuesday passed a resolution urging the presiding judge in the Paxton case to cap the maximum trial cost at $33,000, said County Judge Keith Self, a political ally and donor of Paxton’s.
He said the court believes the amount is appropriate, and that it conforms to Collin County’s local mechanism for funding indigent defense.
Adam Gershowitz, a professor at the College of William & Mary Law Schoolin Virginia, who formerly taught at the University of Houston Law Center, said the cap could prevent prosecutors from having the resources necessary to present a solid case.
“I would call that absurdly low,” said Gershowitz, who has written about the underfunded nature of prosecutors’ offices.
The resolution is non-binding. Presiding Judge George Gallagher of Tarrant County retains the authority to adopt a budget for the case.
Gershowitz said there is no way to estimate exactly what the prosecution should cost. However, at a base cost of $100 an hour, $33,000 would pay for just 330 hours of work, not counting paralegal fees, hiring expert witnesses and other costs, he said.
“These three people are not going to show up and handle a complicated documents case all by themselves,” he said. “These are all clearly unrealistic expectations.”
Self also said the commissioners court received a letter from a Collin County citizen urging them to investigate whether taxpayer funds could be used to pay for the prosecution. Self declined to identify who signed the letter.
“We’re still researching that,” Self said of the request that the commissioners court look into the use of taxpayer money.
As the story notes, there was a third prosecutor added to the case recently. The judge in the case is not bound by any of this, and I kind of doubt he’ll accept their offer. I suppose what this means is that there’s going to be some wrangling about the bill once there’s a verdict. Given the certainty of an appeal if Paxton gets convicted, this could play out even longer than the case against him ultimately will.
UPDATE: The Morning News fills in a few details.
Under Collin County’s rules, each of the three attorneys would be paid $1,000. The commissioners have estimated that a two-week trial at $1,000 per day per attorney adds another $30,000 to the county’s costs. That’s where the $33,000 estimate comes from.
But Gallagher works out of Tarrant County, which has a different fee schedule. That county’s plan calls for $50 to $150 per hour on a felony case plus up to $300 per court appearance and up to $1,500 per day at trial.
Under those fees, Collin County commissioners estimate the cost to be upward of $117,000. But they believe their rules, not Tarrant County’s rules, should apply.
“There’s a wide discrepancy between $33,000 and $2 million,” Collin County commissioner Chris Hill said.
But he noted that the county needs to remain impartial and treat this like any other case. “Justice should be blind to the defendant,” Hill said.
[District Judge Scott] Becker could have appointed another district attorney’s office to handle the case after Collin County District Attorney Greg Willis recused himself. Under the law, the costs for prosecution would have been absorbed by the office of that district attorney. Budgeting costs in the Paxton case became an issue because Becker appointed private attorneys.
Collin County’s fee schedule includes a discretionary adjustment of up to $1,000 more per case. Its guidelines also allow payments to vary from the fee schedule “in unusual circumstances or where the fee would be manifestly inappropriate because of circumstances beyond the control of the appointed counsel.”
Graves said a single public prosecutor could absorb the case into the existing workload at even less cost than the $33,000 estimated for the three attorneys. And he doesn’t believe the case calls for fees beyond what the county allows.
“The only thing arguably unusual in this case is the defendant, but that’s not a legitimate reason to add resources,” he said.
Defense attorney Mitch Nolte said the issue highlights just how woefully little lawyers get paid in Collin County when appointed to felony cases.
“Flat fees are inherently unfair,” said Nolte, noting that the $1,000 doesn’t begin to cover an attorney’s time, let alone all the expenses incurred in a criminal case.
I dunno, maybe letting Travis County handle all this stuff isn’t such a bad idea after all.