Select Page

20150425

Featured: Sen. Judith Zaffirini, D-Laredo, addressing colleagues in the Chamber of the Texas Senate.

Photograph By SENATE MEDIA SERVICES

The Texas Senate on Tuesday, April 21, passed legislation by Sen. Judith Zaffirini, D-Laredo, that would shed light on the compensation paid to attorneys and guardians who are appointed by courts to represent a person, such as a minor, an elderly person or a person with disabilities, who is deemed unable of representing himself or herself. “Two decades ago a Supreme Court task force found evidence that some state judges abused their discretionary authority by using appointment income to reward campaign supporters. Since then, there has been little reform, and the media has continued to report on problems,” said Zaffirini. “When even the appearance of abuse undermines the public’s confidence in the entire judicial system, it is critical that we do more to promote transparency in the ad litem system.” SB 1369 would require courts appointing attorneys, guardians and mediators to submit to the Office of Court Administration data including the name of each person appointed by the court, the rate and total amount of compensation paid to each attorney in that year and the number of hours each attorney served ad litem for the appointed case. The information would be posted on websites accessible to the public and physically at the courthouse. “It appears that more than $25 million in taxpayer money has been spent on these appointments through 2014,” Zaffirini said. “The true cost is likely much higher, however, especially because many courts have not reported the information. SB 1369 will help us gain a clearer picture of the costs and discourage potential abuses.” If a court fails to report the data, it would be made ineligible for state grant funding for a two-year period. Zaffirini, who previously served as Chair of the Senate Government Organization Committee and Co-Chair of the Joint Oversight Committee on Higher Education Governance, Excellence and Transparency, long has promoted legislation that would increase transparency in state government. This session she has filed legislation enhancing the transparency of university system Boards of Regents’ meetings, improving oversight of state contracting, promoting “Truth in Taxation” and centralizing state grant information in a searchable database. Sen. Rodney Ellis, D-Houston, Sen. Joan Huffman, R-Houston, and Sen. Jane Nelson, R-Flower Mound, are co-authors of Zaffirini’s SB 1369.

••••••

Measure to stop judges from rewarding campaign contributors, authored by Sen. Zaffirini, approved by Texas Senate

By WILL KRUEGER

The Texas Senate on Tuesday, April 21, passed legislation by Sen. Judith Zaffirini, D-Laredo, that would shed light on the compensation paid to attorneys and guardians who are appointed by courts to represent a person, such as a minor, an elderly person or a person with disabilities, who is deemed unable of representing himself or herself.

Sen. Rodney Ellis, D-Houston, Sen. Joan Huffman, R-Houston, and Sen. Jane Nelson, R-Flower Mound, are co-authors of Zaffirini’s SB 1369.

“Two decades ago a Supreme Court task force found evidence that some state judges abused their discretionary authority by using appointment income to reward campaign supporters. Since then, there has been little reform, and the media has continued to report on problems,” said Zaffirini. “When even the appearance of abuse undermines the public’s confidence in the entire judicial system, it is critical that we do more to promote transparency in the ad litem system.”

SB 1369 would require courts appointing attorneys, guardians and mediators to submit to the Office of Court Administration data including the name of each person appointed by the court, the rate and total amount of compensation paid to each attorney in that year and the number of hours each attorney served ad litem for the appointed case. The information would be posted on websites accessible to the public and physically at the courthouse.

“It appears that more than $25 million in taxpayer money has been spent on these appointments through 2014,” Zaffirini said. “The true cost is likely much higher, however, especially because many courts have not reported the information. SB 1369 will help us gain a clearer picture of the costs and discourage potential abuses.”

If a court fails to report the data, it would be made ineligible for state grant funding for a two-year period.

Zaffirini, who previously served as Chair of the Senate Government Organization Committee and Co-Chair of the Joint Oversight Committee on Higher Education Governance, Excellence and Transparency, long has promoted legislation that would increase transparency in state government.

This session she has filed legislation enhancing the transparency of university system Boards of Regents’ meetings, improving oversight of state contracting, promoting “Truth in Taxation” and centralizing state grant information in a searchable database.

According to the Senate bill analysis of her measure:

Attorneys and guardians generally are appointed by a court to represent or act on behalf of those most vulnerable in our society and those less likely to identify and report abuse, namely children, elderly persons, and persons with disabilities.

The use of discretion in these appointments sometimes results in abuse and, many times, in the unintentional appearance of abuse, of the appointment system for personal profit or as a way to reward campaign contributors and friends. Even the appearance of abuse in these appointments simply is unacceptable and undermines the public’s confidence in the entire judicial system.

Current law provides for inadequate and insufficient collection of information regarding court appointments. Under an existing Texas Supreme Court order, appointees’ compensation data already should be reported, but in practice are not, hampering transparency and underlining the need for this legislation. Whether courts have either been emboldened not to comply or simply feel the burden of the reporting requirements justifies their noncompliance, full transparency requires timely, complete, and accurate information regarding ad litem appointments.

SB 1369 requires courts appointing attorneys, guardians ad litem, guardians, mediators, and competency evaluators to submit compensation information, including compensation under $500, to the Office of Court Administration (OCA).

OCA would develop a standardized and automated format for courts to submit annually:

• The name of each attorney appointed by the court;

• The name of the judge and the date of the order approving the compensation for each ad litem, guardian, competency evaluator, and mediator who was appointed that year;

• The case number and style for each appointment;

• If available, the reporting of hours worked on the case and hourly rate, or the flat fee compensation or pro bono; and

• The number of cases for each person appointed, and the total amount of compensation to each person.

This report would be made available both online and physically at the courthouse.

Courts would submit reports simply indicating no activity when there was no appointment activity in that year, and they would be ineligible for grant money awarded by the state or a state agency for the next biennium if they fail to report these data.

The Texas Judicial Council would promulgate rules related to the implementation of this bill, and the reporting requirement would be delayed from 2015 until 2016 with the first report due in 2017, to facilitate this implementation.

What’s more, OCA would conduct an interim study regarding an attorney billing system that would increase efficiency and facilitate reporting.

SB 1369 also exempts from the annual reporting requirements under this bill the appointment of certain non-profit volunteers, governmental employees, and attorneys representing minors in proceedings that are confidential under current statutes. These changes to current law would enhance transparency regarding compensation of court appointees and increase public trust in the judicial system’s integrity.

SB 1369 amends current law relating to reports on attorney ad litem, guardian ad litem, guardian, mediator, and competency evaluator appointments made by courts in this state and an interim study on a billing system for those appointments.

During the Monday, March 30 public hearing on SB 1369 before the Senate Committee on State Affairs, the following individuals testified or registered on the measure as it was presented during the hearing:

FOR:

Dr. Patrick Herndon of Spicewood Texas, on behalf of himself and GRADE, the Guardianship Reform for Elderly and Disabled);
Sherry Jo, Member, Guardianship Reform for Elderly and Disabled (GRADE);
Mack Peterson of Cleveland, Texas;
Tonya Peterson of Cleveland, Texas;
Debby Salinas Valdez of San Antonio, Texas, on behalf of GRADE, the Guardianship Reform for Elderly and Disabled;
Dennis Borel of Austin, Texas, Executive Director, Coalition of Texans with Disabilities;
Michael Gutierrez of San Marcos, Texas; and
Jeff Miller of Austin, Policy Specialist, Disability Rights Texas.

AGAINST:

Virginia Pritchett, Mineral Wells, Texas.

Share This

Share this post with your friends!