Who is the Council of Judges? A Four Part Series

conc_judges_1It is a simple question yet no one seems to know the answer. A secretive organization dictating how much El Paso County taxpayers should pay for indigent care and no one has asked a very simple question; who is the Council of Judges? What if I told you that The Council of Judges can impact your taxes while being exempt from public scrutiny? What if I told you that the Council of Judges once attempted to convene a court hearing where elected officials could be subpoenaed all by issuing a court order without a lawsuit being filed? Does El Paso have its very own Star Chamber?

The Star Chamber was an English court of law that became a symbol of judicial abuse where meetings were held in secret and it eventually became a political weapon for the English monarchy. The Council of Judges recently made headlines when Vince Perez questioned why they have control over the county’s auditor. It then showed up on the public’s radar once again when they unilaterally impacted your tax bills by raising the payments to lawyers defending indigent defendants. Other than knowing that the Council of Judges is composed of county judges no one has asked a simple question, how did the Council of Judges come to be?

As is normal in corrupt laden El Paso the El Paso Times, masquerading as a newspaper, published an editorial on December 27, 2013 stating; “The Council of Judges’ recent unilateral decision to raise attorney fees in indigent defense cases by $15 an hour is a classic example of the dysfunctional system set up by the Texas Constitution.” The editorial continues; “The judges can order the additional expenditure and essentially mandate that county Commissioners Court foot the bill – taxpayers be damned.”

All nice and pretty wrapped up in the mantra of advocating for the poor taxpayers of the community. Although the editorial makes a half-hearted attempt at explaining to the readership why the Council of Judges have a say in this when they wrote that “El Paso County is under court order to take a two-pronged approach to indigent defense” it did not bother to explain why. And what does that have to do with the county auditor?

Why is that? Do they not know why the council came to be or what authority it wields? Or is it that the paper is taking sides in a battle for control of the county’s budget?

As you probably already know it’s all about the money and the paper’s favorite politicians looking bad in front of the electorate; Veronica Escobar and Vince Perez. Thus the paper, as is its normal modus operandi, regurgitates what the politicians tell it to write. And that is why the headlines read that the Council of Judges unilaterally raised costs by $15 an hour thus increasing the burden on the taxpayers but it neglects to explain to you the reason why it can even do that.

Plain and simple, this is a power struggle being played out through news bites. Back in September, as the county budget was being discussed, Vince Perez took exception to the fact that the County Auditor’s office is appointed by the Council of Judges. As is typical in El Paso right away politicians started to compare El Paso with other cities and during the discussion it was pointed out that El Paso County Commissioners does not have direct oversight over its budget office. However, Perez’ public pontification was the second public volley in a power struggle that was first publicly acknowledged when Veronica Escobar tried to create a centralized county authority under her control by attempting to create a county manager. When she was repudiated, Vince Perez took over the attempt in an attempt to take control of the budget.

It all plays well before the cameras, the discussion on taxes with saviors stepping in however no one has bothered to ask a simple question; who is the Council of Judges?

What if I told you that El Paso is the only county in the State of Texas with a Council of Judges? Wouldn’t your next logical question be, why?

Why it is that El Paso has a Council of Judges?

Knowing that wouldn’t your next question be what is their authority?

According to the news media we know two things; a Council of Judges appoints the county’s auditor thus being in power to exert some control over the county’s budget and the Council of Judges has the authority to mandate expenses to the Commissioners Court and thus to the taxpayers of the community through unilateral decision.

Thus the next logical question would be; are they elected? That question, obviously, would be followed by an even simpler one, is the Council of Judges subject to public scrutiny? What if I told you it wasn’t, would you be concerned?

What is unfolding before you is a struggle for control of the county’s budget being led on one side by Veronica Escobar and Vince Perez and on the other by the Council of Judges.

Thus the important questions should be answered.

Knowing that the local paper isn’t about to provide you the information you deserve to know in order to be an informed spectator in the power struggle I’ve put together a four-part series starting today and concluding on Friday.

Tomorrow I’ll start by identifying for you who and what is the Council of Judges and how they came to be. I’ll share with you what their mandate is and attempt to identify what their authority is.

On Thursday I’ll share with you how the Council of Judges previously tried to assert control over the county’s budget.

And, on Friday I’ll wrap it all up by sharing with you why I believe what is unfolding is simply a power struggle for control of the taxpayers’ purse strings.

8 thoughts on “Who is the Council of Judges? A Four Part Series

  1. Great Work. I look forward to each posting. According to some of the locals there was a listing of the member of this council of judges that voted for the increase in pay for the selected attorneys. This was supposed to have been released but i have yet to see it. FOI request would be good. There is a serious imbalance in our legal system in el paso.

  2. Spoiler Alert:
    The Council of Judges Administration provides support for seventeen District Courts, seven County Courts at Law, two Probate Courts, a Jail Magistrate, an Associate Child Protective Services Court, three Associate Family Courts, one Protective Order Court, two Juvenile Court Referees, and four County Criminal Courts at Law.
    The administration consists of administrative staff handling the transfer of civil, criminal and family cases to and from courts; the appointment of attorneys to criminal cases of indigent defendants who qualify under the Indigent Defense Program; the assignment of Court Interpreters providing interpreting services for all the courts on behalf of non-English speaking defendants in criminal hearings or civil matters when requested; the assignment of Court Reporters and contract reporters to the courts when requested; the assignment of temp Court Coordinators and temp Bailiffs to assist the court when necessary; assisting the Visiting Judges assigned to the courts with additional staff of a temp bailiff, court coordinator and reporter; keep track of criminal law attorneys CLE’s training hours in order for them to handle criminal cases; data entry in up-dating and entering all attorneys in the data base; scheduling appointments for psychiatric evaluation of defendants; prepare and update strategic planning documents, COOP plan and Indigent Defense Plan; and assist the courts during budget hearings with their requests to Commissioners Court for equipment, staff, etc.

    Want to see who makes up the council?
    http://www.epcounty.com/councilofjudges/courtdirectory.htm

    Sounds sinister……

    1. Mike,
      Thank you for saving me the trouble of posting their public face. However, none of what you posted explains why they only exist in El Paso. Your comment does not explain why it is that they have oversight of the county’s auditor. And more importantly how is it that they have the ability to raise the cost to the county’s budget, in essence raising county taxes or diminishing county services, without the taxpayers’ having recourse through the ballot box. Even more important why are their deliberations outside the scope of the public view? All we know is that they raised the payments to the attorneys. How did they arrive at that decision? Where did the community get a say in that discussion? By the way, you used the word “sinister”, not me. Maybe you do not find it curios that none of that is explained on what you posted, but I do. Keep reading, you might find out that this is more about a power struggle for control of the county’s budget. In the third installment I’ll give you an example of how the budget power struggle was attempted before and the Council of Judges was told, no way.
      Thanks for reading,
      Martín

      1. “……..and assist the courts during budget hearings with their requests to Commissioners Court for equipment, staff, etc.”

        Seriously Martin. My sarcasm is lost on you again with the word “sinister”. I don’t think you are sinister at all.

        They have an input in the budget because they know what they want / need for the courts to operate. County Commissioners do not. Are they all elected? I’ll let you tell your dozen or so readers, because once again I find myself doing the research for you that my 12 year old can do.
        Go back and re-read what THEIR function is.
        Go back and re-read what the function of Government is and how committees are formed and given their oversight.
        Then tell your readers how budgets are put together, how they are approved, and who votes on them. That is why we get to vote for those that represent us.
        I already know the answers so I’ll skip the next few days, unless I get bored and need a good laugh.

  3. Dear Friend, I love your blogs. What would we do without you. As an attorney who does does indigent defense, I have a different take on the problems. Paying the lawyers who do this work is NOT a problem nor is paying them more wrong. They should be paid more. DA Jaime Esparza’s personal secretary, Amy Lujan, who does not have a law degree, as of four years ago was getting a whopping $85,000 (i’m sure it is more now) plus taxpayer trips to Mexico City, Dallas, etc. Many lawyers in that office earn over $100,000/year plus health, vacation, bar dues paid, bar taxes paid, CLE paid, training paid, staff provided, retirement, etc. What does this add up to? What does this kind of fire power mean to the other side of the equation, the defense attorney? How can there be justice when one side-the government that is- is stronger, better paid, has all the resources and no one looks at their budget? Should not the defense attorney who has to do battle against this mammoth of an office receive just as generous of a compensation so that she/he is properly equipped? Liberty depends on this.

    1. Hi TC, thank you! You are correct that defense attorneys need to be paid for their work, especially in El Paso. As you will see in the upcoming posts I will be pointing out how this debacle is nothing more than a power struggle between Veronica Escobar and her side-kick Vince Perez against the Council of Judges. Each one wants to take control of the county’s budget at the expense of the county taxpayer. Unfortunately that is lost in the argument about the cost of indigent defense.
      Thanks!
      Martín

  4. Mike makes many assumptions based on his small little world around him. Some people believe that if you get the first scraps out of the table you should be forever loyal. His reply supports the reasons why we should be made aware of the process and play a role in that process. This is a power struggle alright but it leaves the main characters paying for this struggle out of the picture which is the taxpayers. In my view, the fact that all this and much more is being done by the Council of judges and DA’s Office stinks to high hell.

    1. Birdie, you are right in that my reply SUPPORTS being aware of the process but don’t make assumptions about me or my loyalty.
      I apparently understand the PROCESS involved far greater than you or Martin.

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