WilCo, Texas Fair Defense Project Duke It Out

WilCo attempting to discredit TFDP by alleging ethics violations in complaint pending before Texas Supreme Court's Unauthorized Practice of Law Committee

Williamson County is attempting to discredit the Texas Fair Defense Project by alleging ethics violations in a complaint cloaked in secrecy, one that is still pending before the Texas Supreme Court's Unauthorized Practice of Law Committee months after it was made. TFDP is sponsoring the high-profile class-action lawsuit, filed in June 2006, accusing the county of depriving indigent defendants of their right to court-appointed counsel and of operating a closed court system; the suit names former County Judge John Doerfler; courts-at-law Judges Suzanne Brooks, Tim Wright, and Don Higginbotham; and Magistrate William Eastes. To TFDP attorneys, the county's cryptic complaint is indeed hard to counter, precisely because it isn't articulated. "It's very Kafkaesque. We have to respond to a complaint that we have never seen," says Harry Williams IV, TFDP attorney. The county also filed a motion for dismissal challenging the trial court's jurisdiction to hear the case, denied on Oct. 4 by Judge Joseph Hart. As of Jan. 29, the 3rd Court of Appeals took WilCo's appeal under advisement.

TFDP first got wind of the county's strategy shortly after the lawsuit was filed, when a reporter pulled TFDP's Adrian de la Rosa aside, telling him, "They're watching you." And he was right, for Sgt. Melissa Hightower, an officer of the court, had begun to observe de la Rosa's and a TFDP intern's every move, even trips to the restroom, according to her sworn affidavit dated June 21. "Mr. De La Road [sic] attempted to make eye contact [with] defendants," and an "unidentified male" went to the restroom while de la Rosa was talking to a defendant outside the court, she wrote. Hightower also stated she looked over de la Rosa's shoulder to read his notes. Almost immediately, on June 23, the county filed an emergency motion for temporary restraining order and a request for preliminary injunction against TFDP, stating, with Hightower's affidavit attached, that the group's "agents" were "causing judicial disruption" by "talking to defendants." The move took TFDP staff members by surprise, for they had been observing WilCo courts-at-law for a full two years, with no objection. TFDP agreed to cease speaking to defendants in the hall, politely apologized for dropping a leaflet on the floor (not exactly a copter-drop, by anyone's standards), but vehemently denied any wrongdoing and stated that the motion was intended to "punish" WilCo's court critics, who'd witnessed such incidents as judges sarcastically dismissing defendants' claims of being indigent.

Inexplicably, the county aborted its attempt to accuse TFDP in open court – it has never requested a hearing to affect any injunction whatsoever, apparently opting instead to file the confidential complaint. All TFDP has to go on so far, in fact, is a newspaper article. "If the county had gone to the committee and said, 'We have concerns; please investigate,' the public would never have learned about the allegations, unless the committee found them to be true. But instead, the county announced early on, in the Georgetown Sun, that it was filing a secret complaint," Williams said, "one we can't see." (WilCo refused to disclose the complaint to the Chronicle because it is part of litigation.) WilCo's tactics further illustrate the lawsuit's point, says TFDP. The county's motion "threatens the fundamental right to public trials, a threat all the more serious given the allegations in the underlying case," states TFDP's response.

According to at least one relevant source, WilCo may have little basis for accusing TFDP of "disruptive" behavior. According to a spokesman with the Texas Commission on Judicial Conduct, who did not want his name published and who spoke only generally, "No statewide rule bars whispering, talking with defendants outside the courtroom, looking at them one way or the other. If a defendant looked at someone in the audience like he was going to hurt that person, then, maybe."

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KEYWORDS FOR THIS STORY

WilCo, Texas Fair Defense Project, John Doerfler, Don Higginbotham, William Eastes, Harry Williams IV, Texas Commission on Judicial Conduct

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