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Attorney to appeal jury duty fines collected by the county

Attorney will appeal failed lawsuit...

EL PASO, Texas - A local attorney's office is appealing a lawsuit it lost in 2014, claiming El Paso County wrongly-fined people who did not show up to jury duty.

Attorney Mark T. Davis told ABC-7 it filed an appeal to regain court costs that he said were illegally collected.

In 2014, an El Paso Times investigation found that more than $4 million dollars were collected by the Council of Judges' jury duty court.

Davis argued that the Council of Judges did not have authority to create a trial court overseen by one judge; at the the time the lawsuit was filed it was Judge Jerry Woodard.

"It was never established or approved by the state legislature," Davis said of the jury duty court.

The El Paso County Attorney's Office released a statement on its stance. In part, it talked about the issue of people missing jury duty:

"It is so pervasive that the El Paso County Council of Judges and the presiding judge of the Sixth Administrative Judicial Region made arrangements to create a "jury duty court" to consider contempt cases where prospective jurors had failed to appear. 

The county claimed those who were fined had been given proper notice.

Davis also made the claim that because the alleged contempt of court was not committed in Woodard's presence it cannot be direct contempt, yet Jerry Woodard acted both as a judge and a prosecutor, presenting evidence against the plaintiffs in violation.

The county said that even if Woodard committed an error by assessing court costs, the county is "immune from this suit."

"The county needs to do the right thing. They took money that didn't belong to them, they just need to give it back," Davis said.

County officials argue that because the court fees were given voluntarily, they cannot be refunded.

"The voluntary payment rule does not apply in cases where you're under duress of being arrested," Davis argued.

"The government needs to act with the highest level of integrity."

Judge Maria Salas-Mendoza who presides over the 120th District Court said jury duty court is part of the reason why El Paso County has a good turnout rate.

"Jurors know if they fail to appear they'll be held accountable," Salas-Mendoza said.

After notice, if a person is summoned to a show-cause hearing to explain to a judge why they didn't show up to jury duty, they could still face a fine.

"That fine would range from $100 to $1,000, it just depends on the person and it depends on the excuse," said the judge.

The judge added El Paso County has a 90 to 95 percent response rate.

"That's incomparable to any other jurisdiction in the state of Texas."

Oral arguments will be heard before the 8th Court of Appeals June 8 at 9:00 a.m., on the 12th floor of the El Paso County Courthouse. 

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