Harris County spent $60 million on court-appointed lawyers with big caseloads. Critics call it a waste.
Harris County paid one private attorney just over $1 million last year to represent hundreds of low-income people accused of crimes, helping proliferate a system that critics say wastes taxpayer dollars and robs indigent defendants of a fair shake in court.
Jeanie Ortiz, a former Harris County prosecutor, reported to the state that she earned the $1 million while working on about 400 felonies and 200 misdemeanors. A study funded by the Texas Indigent Defense Commission in 2015 concluded that attorneys could only reasonably handle at most 128 felonies or 226 misdemeanors a year.
“That’s too many cases for one lawyer to handle,” Harris County chief public defender Alex Bunin said of Ortiz’s caseload.
The money that went to Ortiz could have paid for hiring at least five full-time public defenders, all of whom would be subject to strict caseload limits, Bunin said. But his office only has enough funding to take on about one-fifth of indigent defendants’ criminal cases. Judges assign the remainder to private attorneys, with taxpayers shouldering the expense.
Last year, the county paid these court-appointed attorneys $60 million. Almost 100 of them earned more than $200,000 each, and most had extraordinarily high caseloads, state data show. Meanwhile, public defenders in the county make an average annual salary of $115,000, Bunin said.
Besides the $1 million-plus paid to Ortiz, Riddhi Desai was paid almost $600,000 to handle 620 felonies and 121 misdemeanors for indigent clients. Jerome Godinich earned a similar amount for work on 296 felonies and five capital murder cases. A single capital murder case can require as much work as dozens of felony cases.
Ortiz, Desai, and Godinich did not respond to requests for comment. According to state data, they have paying clients on top of their indigent-defense caseloads, but they aren’t required to provide any more detail about them.
Caseloads ‘too high’
“These caseloads, by any standard, are too high,” said Jim Bethke, former director of the commission. Bethke also headed up Harris County’s Office of Justice and Safety for two years, pushing for more oversight over court appointments.
Jed Silverman, president of the Harris County Criminal Defense Lawyers’ Association, countered that none of the top-paid attorneys had been publicly disciplined by the state bar. He also said that the county doesn’t have enough experienced lawyers to handle serious cases, leading the same ones to get called on again and again — even when they might be overloaded.
Silverman said Ortiz might have an especially high caseload because she speaks Spanish, and bilingual attorneys are in high demand. He also said that Godinich, “while his numbers are huge,” is an experienced attorney with a good reputation.
But more than a decade ago, a Houston Chronicle investigation revealed that federal judges had chastised Godinich for repeatedly blowing court deadlines. He was late filing applications for appellate review in the cases of three separate indigent defendants on death row, potentially denying them their constitutional right to a final review of their case before they were executed.
Godinich did not respond to requests for comment.
J. Julio Vela, who earned about $515,000 for his work on 119 felonies and 266 misdemeanors last year, said the caseload data is not always an accurate reflection of someone’s annual workload. Attorneys don’t get paid for their indigent defense cases until there’s a conviction or dismissal. Due to the enormous backlog in Harris County courts, the number of cases attorneys got paid for last year could be a reflection of a flurry of activity after years of delays.
“Harvey slowed us all down, and then COVID pushed everything further,” said Vela, pointing out that more than 10 trials he completed last year were for cases that had been pending for more than two years.
Judges given authority
Sixty years after the U.S. Supreme Court case Gideon v. Wainwright enshrined a person’s right to a lawyer in criminal proceedings, data shows that few indigent clients in the country actually get a good one.
A lack of funding is one big factor, but money isn’t the only reason. Texas’ constitution gives judges the ultimate authority to assign indigent defendants an attorney, and to decide how much that attorney gets paid. That system has led to persistent allegations of favoritism at the expense of defendants.
In Harris County, judges for decades doled out the vast majority of court appointments to a select few. Since attorneys earned a flat fee per case, the only way to make a living representing indigent clients was to take massive numbers of appointments. To get those appointments, attorneys gained favor with the judges by doing everything from contributing to their campaigns to bringing tacos for courtroom staff.
“It was the good ol’ boys system, 100 percent,” Silverman said.
The county eventually began paying court-appointed attorneys hourly. It also opened a public defender’s office in 2010, though many judges refused to use it, instead continuing to appoint overloaded private attorneys. The office has since expanded dramatically, but it still takes the minority of criminal cases in Harris County.
“The issue is, I need money to grow,” Bunin said. And more money will be hard to come by after the county adopted a lower-than-planned tax rate last year following a bitter political fight.
Last year, Harris County launched a new “managed assigned counsel” (MAC) program that has led to modest reforms. About 20 full-time county staffers provide training, investigators and social workers for more than 170 private attorneys who agreed to participate in the MAC program in order to continue receiving misdemeanor court appointments.
“We’re getting better quality of representation,” said misdemeanor Judge Genesis Draper, who took office in 2019. Draper, a former public defender in Harris County, said she’s seen more Spanish-speaking attorneys and more requests for investigators on cases.
There are still no caseload limits. But the program’s director, Kenneth Hardin, said it is helping lower caseloads in other ways. For instance, more than $100,000 of Ortiz’s income last year came from a contract she’d received to work misdemeanor cases in a single judge’s courtroom. The MAC program forbids such contracts in the future.
The MAC also makes it simple for attorneys to stop receiving court appointments when they feel overloaded. Desai asked for such a break recently, Hardin said, adding, “we applaud her for this.” (Ortiz opted not to participate in the new program, which means she will not be receiving any new misdemeanor appointments.)
But the MAC exists only in the misdemeanor courts. That means there is still no oversight of appointments in the felony courts, where attorneys have some of the highest caseloads. Last year, Desai was paid for work on 168 felonies that had all been assigned to her by Judge Nikita Harmon. Those cases alone earned her $117,000 — more than the average annual salary of a full-time Harris County public defender.
Harmon declined to comment through a member of her courtroom staff, who told the Chronicle in an email that “the Judicial Canons generally prohibit judges from responding to media inquiries.”
The caseload debate
Experts have conducted study after study on reasonable caseloads for defense attorneys. All of them indicate that the numbers in Harris County and across Texas are alarmingly high. But despite funding one of those studies, the Texas Indigent Defense Commission’s board has resisted implementing firm caseload limits.
At a recent commission meeting, state Rep. Nicole Collier expressed shock when she saw data on the highest-paid court-appointed attorneys across Texas. Ortiz was at the top of the list.
“You’re telling me that this person got paid $1 million?” said Collier, prompting laughter from some other attendees in the room.
After a few minutes of discussion, Collier concluded, “I think we need to look into this a little bit more.”
“I think we say that every year, don’t we?” said Vivian Torres, a misdemeanor judge in Medina County.
“We do, about the caseload guidelines,” responded Sharon Keller, the longtime chair of the commission’s board and the Republican chief justice for the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals. She went on to argue that the guidelines were too low. A recommended limit of “200-odd” misdemeanors per year, she said, “just can’t be reasonable.”
“I feel like under some circumstances, that’s really not very many cases at all,” Torres said in agreement. She said many misdemeanor cases end in simple pleas, and that “it’s the defendant’s choice.”
Drew Willey, a attorney in Houston who founded a nonprofit geared toward helping criminal defendants get better legal representation, disagreed.
He said he’s represented dozens of people whose original court-appointed lawyers were so overloaded that the clients had languished in jail for months, or even years, without getting a single update on their case.
“They don’t know whether they’ve been indicted or not,” Willey said of the clients he had taken on. “They don’t know who the complaining witness is. They haven’t met their lawyer, and they have no idea if their lawyer is working on their case.”
Correction: An earlier version of this story misstated the minimum amount of money paid to the top 100 paid private attorneys who handled court-appointed cases in 2022.