A cozy little family in juvenile court

This article about how the same attorneys rack up most of the court appointments and accompanying fees for defending indigent clients in juvenile court is fascinating.

Nearly half of all juvenile delinquency appointments have gone to about two dozen of the nearly 165 attorneys vying to represent these young offenders, payment records show. Two attorneys regularly appointed have disciplinary records with the Texas Bar.

Judges say they don’t check the disciplinary records of those they appoint and that they rely on the most experienced or available. But many of their top picks also are juggling additional cases in family or criminal courts.

One of the top earners, attorney Oliver Sprott Jr., has done court-appointed work in the adult criminal courts and helped handle a death penalty case while making nearly $200,000 a year in the juvenile courts since 2005, records show. Public defenders working full time on juvenile or child abuse cases in Dallas County earn between $70,000 and $113,000; Travis County pays between $50,000 and $100,000. Sprott declined to comment for this story.

Caseload of 400
Another attorney, Mark Castillo, works as a part-time municipal judge in South Houston while pleading approximately 400 cases involving young offenders each year in Harris County. The National Advisory Commission on Criminal Justice Standards and Goals recommends a juvenile caseload of 200.

Castillo, who works most Thursday afternoons in the South Houston courts and does arraignments there every other afternoon, said he finds time to give juveniles a good defense and thinks public defenders would be even more pressed for time.

“A lot of them are just misdemeanors — a graffiti case, a marijuana case — those can be disposed of pretty easily,” he said. “You just try to get the best … you can for them.”

All three juvenile court judges have been accused, privately at least, of favoring longtime friends or campaign contributors when appointing lawyers to represent the poor.

But Shelton and Phillips bear the brunt of criticism. Both received more than 90 percent of their campaign contributions from those they appoint; Schneider took in about 74 percent from these lawyers, according to a Chronicle analysis of contributions since 2005.

Mark Sandoval, an attorney appointed almost entirely in Sheltons’ court, has also represented Shelton’s wife in a lawsuit related to a fatal car crash involving their daughter, who was convicted of intoxicated manslaughter late last year. Sandoval, who did not return calls for comment, continues to get appointments despite being twice suspended between 1997 and 2000 by the State Bar of Texas for professional misconduct.

And two of the courts’ top earners, Sprott and Glenn Devlin, who together earned $1 million from taxpayers since 2005, are longtime friends of Phillips and Shelton. Devlin was Phillips’ campaign treasurer and former law partner. And each year during baseball season another top earner, attorney Gary Polland, lets Phillips sit in his seats near home plate for a dozen or so games. The judge says he always repays Polland for the cost of the tickets and has taken pains — including limiting all donations to his campaign to $500 per person — to erase any appearance of impropriety.

There was a chart in the print edition that showed how much campaign cash these most-frequently-appointed attorneys have given to the judges. The amounts were in the $10K and under range, which frankly strikes me as not terribly impressive. I think the cronyism is more of a concern than the contributions, but no matter how you slice it, the whole thing looks bad and really deserves closer scrutiny. And I’m thinking this just may be a campaign issue for Gary Polland if he does run for the soon-to-be-open SD17 seat.

For his part, Shelton says he gets no joy from his appointment powers and plans to study public defender offices in other cities. All three judges deny any correlation between contributions and appointments.

“I would be happier if there was a public defender system,” Shelton said.

Well, yes, that would solve this little dilemma, wouldn’t it? Which leads to the curious sidebar story about how “some critics” say a public defender’s office would be no better than what we’ve got now.

[C]ritics of public defender systems call them bureaucratic catastrophes. And though studies have shown public defenders offices can be cheaper than an appointment system, no one has figured out a way to objectively compare the quality of defense, said James Bethke, director of the Texas Task Force on Indigent Defense.

And we have that now, for the current system? At least with a public defenders office, you’d have someone conducting annual performance reviews, which seems to me is better than nothing. This strikes me as a perfect-as-enemy-of-the-good rationale.

Malikah Marrus, a social worker with the Southwest Juvenile Defender Center, believes a new system would help. In her years working in the courts, Marrus said, she has seen an attorney pull a child by the ear and yell at him in court and others ignore the youngsters they are paid to defend.

“Some (attorneys) just don’t talk to their clients,” she said. “They just don’t talk to them. It’s like their client doesn’t exist.”

Other critics contend that the attorneys given the biggest caseloads are so overworked they can’t meet with clients.

“From the time of the detention hearing to the first hearing/arraignment in district court, the child generally is sitting in detention with no idea of the charges, (or) many times of their next hearing, and no counsel from an attorney,” noted the Juvenile Detention Alternative Initiative in a report to the county last month.

But many working the current system believe a public defender office — unless adequately funded — would make matters only worse.

None of these critics are named or quoted, so we have no idea who might think this or why. I must say, I have no idea why this story was run, because I have no idea what it intended to say. I’m perfectly willing to hear criticisms of a public defender’s system, especially in the context of how it might compare to the mess we have now, but it would be very helpful if articles that purported to be about such criticism actually contained it. That’s not so much to ask, is it?

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2 Responses to A cozy little family in juvenile court

  1. Ron in Houston says:

    The question everyone needs to ask is:

    “How effective of representation will you get from Oliver Sprout or Glen Devilin?”

    These guy have an inherent conflict of interest. If you’re going to be an effective advocate, you’re going to take positions that disagree with the judge. You’ve got to sometimes be willing to appeal them to show them they’re flat out wrong.

    It’s a way too incestuous system over in the juvenile courts. I personally know lawyers who have been banned for being overly zealous advocates.

  2. jigmeister says:

    The answer to the contribution problem has always been to make judicial races not partisan.

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