A prospective client asked me today whether or not I accept court-appointed criminal cases and was relieved to find that I don't.  This is a question I get at least once a month. People facing the prospect of going through the criminal justice system are suspicious of court appointed lawyers and are surprised and disconcerted to find out that so many lawyers accept criminal cases on a court-appointed basis. I think that they are right to feel uneasy. In case you don't know, here's how the court-appointed system works, or is supposed to work, in criminal cases in both Comal and Guadalupe Counties: First, a person shows up to court and tells a judge or court coordinator that he can't afford to hire a lawyer.  It's not automatic that he gets a lawyer.  He's then usually required to fill out some paperwork describing his financial situation in order to see if he "qualifies" to have a lawyer appointed (why the courts think anyone would ask to have a lawyer appointed when he could afford to hire his own is beyond me).  By the way, don't ask me what the financial guidelines are for qualifying for a court-appointed lawyer.  There is no set formula under Texas law. 

I have asked judges and court coordinators what the official cut-off is, and have never gotten a straight answer.  And I have repeatedly seen people on Social Security disability denied the appointment of an attorney. But let's say the person qualifies.  The court then selects a name of an attorney from a list of attorneys that have told the court that they will accept court appointed criminal cases.  In theory, the attorney is supposed to be whoever is next on the list.  Often, the attorney is just whoever happens to be handy.  Lawyers who hang around courthouse waiting to get appointments are sometimes referred to as "courthouse vultures."  The defendant has no say in who is appointed to him; it's the luck of the draw.  The attorney appointed may be the second coming of Johnny Cochran, or he may be Elmer Fudd.  If the defendant does not like his attorney, it is rare that a court will allow him to fire the attorney and replace him with another court-appointed attorney. The attorney then goes to work on the case.  Typically, in most courts, a court-appointed attorney will not be paid fees until the case is finished.  Thus, the attorney has a strong incentive to finish the case as quickly as possible.  Needless to say, it is rarely in the best interest of the defendant for the case to go as quickly as possible. 

The other questionable feature of the court-appointed system is that the lawyer gets paid by the same court that may wind up punishing his client.  Keep in mind that judges reserve the right to kick lawyers off of the court-appointed list if the lawyer displeases them.  Again, there is more of an incentive to please the court by moving cases quickly through the system than there is to look after the best interests of the client. Finally, it should be noted that the court-appointed lawyer is not "free."  If a person is convicted or placed on probation, he is required to reimburse the court for the fees it gave to the attorney. As I said, it doesn't surprise me at all that defendants think that this system is rigged against them.  The most curious thing I have seen over the years is the number of indignant lawyers (always court-appointed) who have approached me asking why I refuse to participate in the system.  The answer is easy:  it's an unjust, dysfunctional system, and I'm not a codependent enabler.

Do I think indigent defendants deserve representation?  Of course.  I also believe that, if the State of Texas cared about defendants' rights, it would join most of the rest of the civilized world and create a state-wide system of public defenders offices staffed by lawyers who specialized in criminal defense.  Why won't Texas do this?  For the same reason it let's child abuse go on relatively unchecked, doesn't provide adequate care for the mentally ill, and maintains one of the worst performing school systems in the country.  The present system is cheap.  Doing things right would cost money.  And the State doesn't care enough to spend money. And that's why I don't accept court-appointed criminal cases.