Perez sends state letter requesting audit of judges

Perez sends state letter requesting audit of judges

EL PASO, Texas - The El Paso Council of Judges said Monday that Precinct One County Commissioner Vince Perez is mistaken in saying El Paso district judges may be showing favoritism in allocating taxpayer dollars toward defending the poor in court.

Perez on Monday formally asked the state to audit El Paso County's process for appointing indigent defense attorneys -- he sent a letter to the state Indigent Defense Commission. Perez said in the past three fiscal years, the top 10 percent of attorneys earned about half of the county's indigent defense spending.

"A certain level of inequality in the funding and the way it's distributed, so then I believe it warrants a further look at how that money is distributed," Perez said. "What are the decisions, what are the processes in place?"

Perez said the top 10 percent of attorneys should receive about one-third of indigent defense fees. But District Judge Patrick Garcia of the Council of Judges said every case is different.

"Right now we're picking a jury in a capital murder case, and it's going to take us about 10 weeks at least, eight hours a day," Garcia said. "We have two attorneys there present with us to get to the 12 jurors that we're ultimately going to need. So if you include all that, you understand it's why some attorneys are making more in a given year, because of the cases they're handling."

Judges are supposed to assign attorneys based on a rotating list managed by the court administrator. The list contains about 300 private attorneys and all 34 of the county's public defenders. But again, some cases require more experience.

"You don't appoint an attorney with little experience to a capital murder," Garcia said. "You appoint attorneys that have the experience, jury trial experience to do it. So you're not going to just appoint anybody to a given case. You have to take into consideration experience, and different levels of cases require different levels of experience."

Private Defense Attorney Joe Spencer teamed up with Chief Public Defender Jaime Gandara to represent Christian Martinez in his capital murder trial this year.

"We don't want to have another Daniel Villegas case," Spencer said. "Where you have an attorney that's not qualified to represent somebody on a capital case, and after spending 20 years in prison, we find out that there was a mistake made ... The Council of Judges gets audited statewide all the time, and I think that that's already under scrutiny. My concern is an independent audit cost to the taxpayer, and there's really no need for it, in my opinion."

"I never saw any favoritism in 25 years that I practiced in private bar," Gandara said. "During the time I worked for the public defender, I started as the capital murder first-chair defense lawyer, and so I wasn't exposed to seeing what was going on with the appointments, and having a point of view to compare, but in the 25 years I was out in private practice, no."

Garcia said annual state audits of El Paso judges have never revealed any problems. County commissioners are also trying to stop a salary increase for indigent defense attorneys that will take effect April 1 -- an increase that's not on the budget. The Council of Judges will meet Thursday to discuss the salary increase.

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