Taxpayers in one North Texas county are demanding answers from their county commissioners, saying a recent vote to spend taxpayer dollars on a “test case” is a diversionary tactic designed to create an excuse for even bigger spending on the political prosecution of Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton.
Last week the Collin County Commissioners Court voted 3–2 to challenge in court a $5,000 invoice from a local indigent defense attorney. The move is openly being described as a “test case” on whether the commissioners can challenge much larger invoices from the private attorneys prosecuting Paxton.
But local taxpayer Jeff Blackard is crying foul, accusing the court’s majority of designing the “test case” to fail in order to create an excuse for them to continue paying the Houston-based lawyers in Paxton’s case. Blackard has sued to stop the funding of the Paxton prosecution, arguing payments to the private lawyers that amount to hundreds of thousands of dollars (and that are expected to reach millions if the case goes to trial) violate state law and local judicial rules.
County Judge Keith Self and County Commissioners Cheryl Williams and Duncan Webb voted to challenge a bill submitted by a local indigent defense attorney. The challenge, over a $5,000 invoice, is expected to cost tens of thousands of dollars to litigate. The move is a reversal for Self and the two commissioners who have in the past argued they are not allowed legally to challenge judicial orders to pay such invoices.
In an email to the commissioners’ court and others, Blackard criticized the decision, arguing the two situations are not similar.
“[A]side from the unfairness of this procedure to an unlucky criminal defender, what does the Court hope to gain? Even if the Court prosecutes the test case vigorously … the test case has nothing to do with the Attorney Pro Tem issue. The law and facts would be far different. It would rely solely on the allowance of a minimal departure from the express guidelines, using the “unusual circumstances” test. Such circumstances for a criminal indigent defense attorney would be far different from the circumstances faced by District Judge Becker when he unilaterally fixed a $300 per hour fee for both civil and criminal litigators—including prosecutors—in litigation related to Attorney General Paxton.… [T]he “test case” could well turn on special factors that will not answer any questions about the Attorney Pro Tem litigation—even though a majority of Commissioners are clearly hoping to argue otherwise.”
In the run-up to the Paxton case, Collin County District Judge Scott Becker made a unilateral handshake agreement for Collin County to pay several Houston-based prosecutors – and indeed any attorney who works on any case related to Ken Paxton – a $300 per hour fee.
Becker is a long-time political opponent of Paxton, hailing from the liberal wing of the Collin County Republican Party. According to local sources, at the time he made the agreement, Becker was not aware of state laws limiting payments to private prosecutors to the amount that is routinely paid to indigent defense lawyers.
Since realizing his handshake agreement with the special prosecutors violates state law, Becker and other defenders of the excessive fees have argued that an obscure provision in the county’s local rules allowing indigent defense fees to exceed the standard in “unusual circumstances” allows the county to pay hundreds of thousands of dollars to the special prosecutors.
Because the $5,000 invoice submitted by the local indigent defense lawyer exceeds the standard $2,000 fee, the commissioners’ court majority is attempting to conflate the two issues. According to Mike Giles, another Collin County taxpayer, the court’s majority wants to lose the case because they are “looking for an ‘out’ politically.”
In his email, Blackard is calling for answers as to who proposed filing the “test case” and urged the commissioners to intervene in his suit challenging the fees if they truly want answers on the matter.
“The Commissioners Court owes the public an explanation about just why it believes it will accomplish anything by “testing” the de minimis claims of a lawyer for poor litigants. Further, who proposed this “test,” and why is the Commissioners Court using such an expensive and round-about way of finding a legal answer? The Court is forgetting that there is already a real case—not just a test case—that seeks to decide the question. That’s the Blackard case against the Commissioners Court and the Attorneys Pro Tem. It’s time for the Court’s majority to stop dancing around the issue and making excuses. If it believes it has a right to challenge the Attorney Pro Tem invoices, it needs to make that argument in the Court of Appeals next month in the Blackard case, and then help Blackard get to the bottom of the billing issues.”
The move is a naked attempt to create shoddy political cover for those who support spending millions of Collin County taxpayers’ dollars to destroy the life and political career of Texas’ attorney general. Taxpayers should stand with Blackard and tell their local leaders not to waste more money in search of shoddy excuses for their failure to stand up for the rule of law.