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Monday, September 27, 1999
Court may get public defenders
Commissioners: Change could save thousands
By Jennifer Stump
The creation of a new county court may give officials their first chance to bring a long-discussed - but never-tested - system to Nueces County: public defenders.
A limited public defender system could be set up for County Court-at-Law No. 5, officials said.
"We've been kicking that idea around for a long time," Commissioner Frank Schwing said. "We're going to get an opportunity to test that system, increase the efficiency of the court and lower the cost."
The new county court-at-law would use "barely a handful" of attorneys to handle legal issues for people who can't afford to pay for the services, Schwing said. The attorneys would be under contract with the county on a yearly basis and handle multiple cases, in contrast to the current system in which district and county court-at-law judges appoint whomever they want to a specific case.
The new county court will start operating in October, and County Attorney Carl Lewis will be sworn in Oct. 1 as the judge of County Court at Law No. 5. But Lewis said the public defender system likely will take longer to establish.
County Commissioners last week approved the funding to hire public defenders for the court, but Lewis said it will take time to hire the attorneys and decide how the system will work.
Until then, Lewis will continue to use court-appointed lawyers.
"We'll just go on with that process until we can see if this will work," he said. "The court will carry on until the system is set up."
The No. 5 court primarily will handle juvenile, Child Protective Services, guardianship and mental health cases and will operate out of the county's Juvenile Justice Center.
"This would probably be the best opportunity to use it because the practice and the location are very unique," Lewis said. "There are a small number of lawyers who practice juvenile defense. We've got to use someone who is willing to specialize their practice."
At Commissioners Court last week, District Judge Mike Westergren endorsed the plan for a limited public defender for juvenile court, saying the light caseload of the new county court-at-law makes it a logical place to test the idea.
In anticipation of the change, the county budgeted $150,000 for attorneys in Lewis' court, as opposed to the estimated $250,000 Schwing said it might cost if Lewis appointed lawyers to individual cases.
The county spent $1.67 million on court-appointed attorneys in 1998, according to a study by County Auditor Peggy Hayes' office. That included $215,000 for juvenile and detention cases and $122,000 for mental health hearings.
In 1997, the county spent $1.4 million to hire court-appointed attorneys.
"It seems like costs are escalating and the number of cases is not," Schwing said.
Lewis said having a few attorneys always available for juvenile cases would make his court more efficient. Balancing the schedules of various attorneys with the court's calendar would be unnecessary because everyone would operate on the court's schedule, he said.
"CPS and juvenile cases have inflexible and important deadlines," Lewis said.
Schwing said the public defender system could save the county tens of thousands of dollars.
"It's great looking at it from a budget standpoint," he said. "Instead of getting paid by the case, they'll get paid by the year. They will try all cases for X number of dollars. It's going to be a great opportunity. They'll have an opportunity to specialize and it means the public will end up with a better public defender. If it works well, who knows? The county courts or district courts may want to implement something similar."
Staff writer Jennifer Stump can be reached at 886-3778 or by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org
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