The Council of Judges; Tying Everything Together

conc_judges_4aIn the last three days, I have attempted to introduce you to the Council of Judges. By now, you are aware of how it is that they came to be. I believe you will agree with me that their mandate is supposed to be assuring that indigent defendants are properly represented in court. It is also important to point out that their function is a direct result of a civil rights lawsuit settlement making El Paso the only county in the state to have a public defender’s office mandated by law. Some will argue, and maybe rightly so, that giving the Council of Judges control over the county’s budget furthers the objective of ensuring defendants their rights, regardless of their ability to pay.

Others may believe that the reason I have focused on the Council of Judges has to do with them unilaterally raising taxes for the county. Although the tax issue brought them to my attention, what really got me interested in them was the lack of specificity about them.

The media was spending a lot of time castigating them for raising fees for attorneys without bothering to ask two simple questions; why do they exist and how is it they have oversight over the county’s auditor.

The thing that bothers me the most about public policy commentary is that public perception is swayed by headlines of higher-taxes and politicians pontificating about the people. In this case, the Council of Judges was exploited by Veronica Escobar as an example of why taxes are high. Through all of that pontification the latest power struggle is being played out for control of the county’s budget while everyone is distracted by the Council of Judges raising fees.

As with everything in politics, it is important to understand the various dynamics at play with each component manipulating outcomes as needed for their personal agendas. We now know that the Council of Judges are supposed to be ensuring that defendants have the legal representation required under the laws of the state and the country. We have also being informed that they have jurisdiction over the county auditor. However, it is not clear, why they were given that authority, or when.

Understanding that the county is composed of various elected officials, each with authority over their department’s budget, but each subject to the scrutiny of the elected officials that make up the county commissioners it was difficult for me to see why the Council of Judges had oversight over the auditor. It doesn’t make sense to me.

According to the County Auditor’s brochure explaining their function, it states that in “counties having a population over 10,000” the appointment of the County Auditor “is vested in the majority of State District Judges”. Although it makes that statement it offers no reasoning behind it. Although the brochure explains how the Commissioners Court and the County Auditor act as a type of “checks and balances” and because neither has “authoritative control over the other” it then, in my opinion, imbalances the equal distribution of power by throwing in a third party, the judges.

I realize that the argument is based on the notion that in larger counties one-person should not be the counter-balance between the elected body and thus the judges are substituted. Regardless, there are many doctrines and laws that make no sense to me.

It is what it is and it is the system in place. However there are other dynamics at play that are important to discuss.

The first is that the Council of Judges, although they were created under the auspices of government authority and as we have seen have control over the county’s budget do not meet in public.

Directly, or indirectly they influence the county’s budget and yet I could find no public meeting announcements, minutes or information about past or current meeting agendas. In fact, at this point I assume they hold meetings of some type in order to conduct business, although I cannot document them.

One regular reader to my blog has commented to me that the Council of Judges claim to be exempt from the open meetings laws. In order to test that assertion I have submitted open records requests to see if they, in fact assert it and if so under what authority. Although it is likely they will assert confidentiality based on the fact that they handle some employee related functions, like any other governing body there is a mechanism in place to go into executive session to discuss those matters privately.

Keep in mind that for all intents and purposes this body is a governmental body that is supposed to ensure equal access to the judiciary for everyone, that it has some control over the taxpayers’ of the community and in many instances can influence how defendants are treated in court. If it is true that they are asserting exemption from open meetings laws then it is important to determine that validity of that.

As I wait to receive a response to my open records requests there are a few other things to consider.

As some of you might remember, local attorney and former Judge Richard Roman pointed out in a recent editorial that of the $134.6 million from the mortgage settlement monies paid by the banks to Texas, $10 million went to the state’s judiciary fund. Did some of that money end up in El Paso, and if so was it tasked towards indigent defense? If not, why not?

I have also pointed out that what is developing around the ongoing public posturing is nothing more than control of the county’s budget. The key is obviously controlling the county auditor. I have already shown you how the Council of Judges previously attempted to control the county’s budget through court action only to be rebuffed by a higher court.

As always, there is more at play then just what is played out in the open.

Texas Senate Bill 1426 is pending before the Texas Senate. The pending bill, if enacted would create a “County Auditor Board”. The proposed County Auditor Board would be composed of the county judge, one county commissioner and, in the case of El Paso, three district judges.

In essence, it removes the Council of Judges from direct oversight of the county auditor and vests the authority over the new body composed of two elected officials and three judges. On paper, it looks nice and clean but in practical terms, at least for El Paso, the judges make up the majority of the new board. Thus, they retain control over the county auditor.

Although the proposed changes to the law were supposed to go into effect on January 1 of this year, it appears that the legislation is still pending before the legislature. Had it gone into effect the appointment of the existing county auditor would not have been affected until after his departure from the county.

As you can see, this legislation is part of the back-and-forth between Veronica Escobar and cohort Vince Perez and the Council of Judges.

When I receive a response to my open records requests, I will follow up and let you know the outcome.