TCDLA Affiliate and Rural Practice Committees

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Saturday, June 2nd, 2012
Committee Reports

Mission Statement of the TCDLA Affiliate Committee

by Bobby Mims

“The Affiliate Criminal Defense Bar Committee seeks to promote the establishment of local county and/or city crimi­nal defense bar associations in order to promote the mission of TCDLA at the grassroots level. This committee will also advise and assist members who seek to form and/or strengthen their organizations by providing pro forma bylaws and organization materials. Additionally, this committee will work with the Criminal Defense Lawyers Project Committee to coordinate criminal law seminars held in all areas of the state in conjunction with TCDLA affiliates which are seeking to stimulate growth of the local organizations and thereby growth to TCDLA. The Committee will advise the officers and staff of TCDLA on methods to establish clear lines of communication between TCDLA and local affiliate organizations in order to ensure that the state organization is cognizant and responsive to the concerns of the local membership.”

Committee:

Mimi Coffey, Sharon Curtis, Harold Danford, John Gilmore, James Granberry, Deandra Grant, Bobby Mims, Doug Murphy, Katherine Scardino, Gary Thomas, and Christopher Tritico

Activities:

Presently TCDLA has 32 affiliates associations. Presently TCDLA members are organizing new affiliates in Corpus Christi and Texarkana. The existing organization in Corpus Christi appears to have been subsumed by the Nueces County Bar Association and has ceased to function as solely a criminal defense association, and meetings are attended by civil attorneys, prosecutors, and judges. Recently, two members advised that they were disenchanted and stated that “TCDLA does nothing for the lawyers in the Coastal Bend.” Joe Martinez has forwarded copies of bylaws to one of our members in Corpus. The Trail Tactics: The Art of War seminar was held on August 26, 2011, in Corpus Christi. This is a huge geographical area with a large population presently under-served by TCDLA. Re-establishment of an affiliate in Corpus and the Coastal Bend is a priority of this committee.

Charles Pelowski of Texarkana has volunteered to start an affiliate in Texarkana as the Bowie County Criminal Defense Lawyers Association. We have never had a significant presence in Texarkana other than our members, and this area is another demographic that is under-served by TCDLA. There are good opportunities to add membership if we can establish an active and effective affiliate in Texarkana. Charlie Pelowski is one of our brightest young members and is presently with the Bowie County Public Defender’s Office in Texarkana. We may add members who are licensed in Arkansas as well as Texas. If we plan a seminar in that area, we may even be able to have CLE approved by the Arkansas State Bar and attract participants that would otherwise not be available and realize revenues generated from out-of-state sources.

The committee asks for input from the membership on other areas that need attention, and we are looking for opportunities to expand the service to all members wherever they are located in Texas.

Report of the Rural Practice Committee

by Theodore A. (Tip) Hargrove III

El Presidente created a new committee called Rural Practice, and we are glad he did! Criminal defense for those of us who live and/or work in Hooterville can be quite different than that seen by our brothers and sisters in the city. Example: A defense lawyer in a small rural county wants a bench trial on a misdemeanor domestic assault case. The county judge is not a lawyer. The defense counsel and the prosecutor, who are on a first-name basis, go see the county judge with whom both are on a first-name basis. The county judge is friends with the defendant’s family and wants to recuse himself. The three of them talk about it for a while and agree that the defense at­tor­ney can draft for the county judge a letter to the dis­trict administrative judge asking for someone to be appointed. Defense counsel and the prosecutor agree on a couple of choices and off the letter goes. Can you folks in Gotham City imagine doing such a thing? Probably not, but those facts—and they are facts—illustrate many of the things that we are discovering about rural practice.

Shortly before Rusty, the Rural Practice Committee sent out a questionnaire to any and all who classified themselves as rural practitioners. The results are interesting. The first thing we discovered is that rural practitioners don’t like to fill out questionnaires! Some of what we have to report here is based on a spotty response so take all this with a grain of salt.

First, there appears to be more male rural practitioners than female, and usually at or past middle age. The percentage that are board certified is rather low. That is likely a function of economics. Very few rural practitioners indicated that they could survive on criminal defense work alone. The vast majority handle family, real estate, probate, and various other areas of civil prac­tice. A fair number of responders even indicated that they represented the local bank or credit union. Virtually everyone handles family law cases in addition to criminal defense. With a few exceptions, rural practitioners have a large number of appointed cases each year. There was only one person who practiced in an area where it was possible to opt out of appointed work. Most indicated that they were not allowed to opt out if they accepted criminal cases for pay. This is quite a contrast to urban areas where attorneys compete for appointed clients. In the rural areas many are overwhelmed by appointments and wish they had fewer. One responder indicated that he had averaged 72 appointed cases for 10 years in a row. That same practitioner reported that one third of his total criminal and civil case load was appointed criminal while one ninth of his income was from appointed criminal.

That leads to the next area of questions which, concern whether or not the rural practitioner felt that the fee paid for appointed criminal cases was fair. Most indicated that “fair” was the wrong word. Few believed the fee received was fair, but most indicated they could live with it. Most also indicated that they had little trouble actually getting the judge to sign an order for payment; that is probably related to the fact that most rural practitioners know their judges on a first-name basis.

The average rural practitioner sees the same judges and same prosecutors every day. Most are on friendly terms with the judge and prosecutor. Only a few growled that they could not get along with the judge and/or pros­e­cutor with no explanation as to why. Very few responders indicated they ever had to take punitive action against the judge or prosecutor, and very few in­di­cated any experience with the grievance committee. That probably means problems are handled internally on a face-to-face basis behind closed doors rather than within the formal disciplinary process.

Virtually every responder indicated the computer was essential to their practice. Most used some form of ad­ver­tising but of a “low key” nature. You just don’t put up a billboard or have a TV ad in Pecos, Texas.

Everyone wanted to collect their fees up front and few ever got it. Most admitted they had to work on a pay-out basis, and many times were stuck with collecting only a partial fee.

Our responders came from counties from all sizes, with at least one saying he lived in a county of 750,000 people. It seems clear that many of us consider ourselves to be rural practitioners although we live in the city. That means we travel to small counties and do not mind doing so.

When it came to seminars, most wanted those that did not extend beyond two days and were on Friday and/or Saturday. The requested topics were varied but centered on DWI and scientific evidence. We surmised—partly from personal experience—that when you live in the country you drive around with a cold beer in your hand.

The committee was gratified, and TCDLA should be too, with the responses concerning what we were do­ing right or wrong. Most responders indicated that TCDLA was helpful, and that nothing was missing in the way of effort extended by the organization.

Now to what is needed. Everyone wanted to know how to get access to information. While the List Serve was applauded, it was also deemed to be, at times, overwhelming. In addition, it was difficult to anticipate which gems to save and which ones to delete. That leads us to a suggestion or two. The rural practice committee would like to improve access to resources. There is a lot of information out there, but how do we get to it? Here is an example. Frequently, the List Serve refers to a wonderful article in the Harris County Criminal Defense Lawyers Association publication, The Defender. How is a lawyer in Paducah, Texas, going to get that? Perhaps the large-county TCDLA af­filiates could provide for an auxiliary membership for non-locals. I personally have joined the Harris County Criminal Defense Lawyers Association to have access to The Defender although it is unlikely I will ever attend a meeting. We also wonder why we can’t establish not just a brief bank but a memo bank as well. Many times a one-page analysis of a particular sub­ject that should be preserved somewhere will show up on the List Serve. The comments of Michael Mowla and Leonard Martinez are prime examples. We need a place for those things to go so we can find them on an as-needed basis. Fact situations that occur in Dallas or Houston on a daily basis may occur in Marfa only once a year, and while Mr. Mowla responds every time he is asked, he shouldn’t have to do that. Hopefully a better system of gathering and indexing our resources would be a benefit not just to the rural practitioner but to the membership no matter where located.

The Rural Practice Committee will continue to function and gather information on the country lawyers of Texas. Hopefully, the more we know the more we will be able to help. It is good to know that rural prac­ti­tioners like and appreciate our organization. We pledge to continue to strive to do an even better job for our members and TCDLA.