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time he’s received an assignment from the county computer. But Mays has never paid to buy his way off the list. Instead, he continues to receive assignments he doesn’t take, because, he says, “it’s too expensive to join the San Antonio Plan.” Bar Association Director Allison says many San Antonio attorneys are feeling financially squeezed these days. As a group, they’ve always made less than their counterparts in Houston, Dallas, and Austin. Things have gotten worse since the closing of Kelly Field, which used to generate a wealth of employment and concomitant demand for legal services. As well, since the late eighties, the conservative “tort reform” movement has successfully pushed legislative reforms that make it very hard for plaintiffs and their lawyers to win favorable verdicts or money from companies sued for injury. Worker compensation cases have also dried up, due to changes that hinder payments to attorneys from clients who win government benefits. So Bexar County lawyers are pinching pennies. And since Mays had not paid $500 to have his computer appointments transferred to another lawyer on the bonus wheel, when his name got hooked up with Bobby’s, the two were joined at the hip. Yet Mays didn’t want Bobby for a client. So he contacted Cynthia Babbitt Foster, a colleague who does criminal defense work, and asked her to take the case. Foster agreed, and Mays asked Judge Harle to approve the change. He did, on October 29. Bobby had now been in jail for six weeks without talking to a lawyer. He was desperate to meet with his new attorney. He wanted to tell her certain things that, if substantiated, would have blown holes in the cops’ case against him such as that on the day he was arrested, the shorts he was wearing weren’t khaki, but gray. COUNSEL FOR HIRE Cynthia B. Foster is a petite, quick-moving woman with a friendly smile and a no-nonsense gaze. She’s someone you might expect to mount a spirited defense if you were facing hard time and looking for a lawyer. In addition although Bobby’s case didn’t come to her this way Foster is on the bonus wheel, which means she knows how to do criminal law. On the other hand, Foster has a lot of poor clients indeed, some would say too many of them to give each one quality representation. That is because she is part of a third Bexar County indigent defense subsystem, appointments that come directly from the courtroom. To get county-paid clients, Foster doesn’t rely merely on a few cases from the county’s computer or the Bar Association’s bonus wheel. Instead, she joins dozens of other lawyers who haunt the courthouse every morning, trotting from courtroom to courtroom, hoping judges and their coordinators will give the lawyers spur-of-the-moment work representing poor people who showed up for their court dates without attorneys. Foster says she has a passion for criminal defense work. Yet she is a relative newcomer to the field, and didn’t start law school until she’d finished raising children and was in her late forties. After getting licensed a few years ago, she opened a practice with her daughter, Catherine Babbitt. Today, Foster is still building her client list. To pay her bills in the meantime, Foster frequents the courthouse and picks up appointments, such as the 106 cases she billed the county for during fiscal year 1998. Daughter Catherine Babbitt billed 120 cases, but handed several over to Foster after getting a job in the D.A.’s office. Many of these cases were misdemeanors, because in most computers to make indigent assignments. Instead, they and their coordinators personally choose the attorneys. And in felony courts, even though appointments are officially supposed to be made via county computer, assignments also are often made by the judge and his assistants. They tend to favor the same lawyers over and over again. Perhaps not coincidentally, those lawyers favor the judges with generous campaign contributions when election time rolls around. In the 226th District Court, for instance, Judge Sid Harle gave only ten attorneys a third of the $367,486 he spent last year for lawyers, and 42 percent of the cases his court handled. Meanwhile, Judge Sharon McCrae, of the 290th Court, paid 42 percent of her budget to ten lawyers, who handled over a quarter of her cases. Harle ran unopposed in last year’s election, but McCrae had an opponent and needed campaign money. The top-earning lawyers in her court often made several contributions apiece, in amounts ranging from forty dollars to $500 per donation. Most of Foster’s appointments came from judges such as Harle and McCrae. But she was small potatoes compared to lawyers like Russell Mitchell, who in 1998 billed the county for 667 cases and collected almost $61,000. Or Charles Rubiola, who earned more than $77,000 for 575 cases. Or Hilda Valadez,whose bills for 399 cases totalled about $73,000 \(and who last year kicked back $3,100 to the coffers of incumbent countyand district-court judges runD.A.’s office, and all insist that they have the skills to handle their large volume of indigent appointments. They say they advise every client of the right to a trial, and let the defendant decide whether to exercise that right or cop a plea. But at best, what really happens between indigent clients and their appointed attorneys seems far more ambiguous. Last winter and spring, I went court hopping to see how poor people’s cases get handled. What I witnessed was low-grade pandemonium. Attorneys rushed into court, grabbed a file or two, and sat down for a quick read: this was their first and often most lengthy exposure to their new client’s case. Confused-looking defendants, mostly Hispanic or African-American, met their counsel amid a hubbub of other defendants, defendants’ spouses, and defendants’ squalling babies. Clients who’d posted bond sat in the spectator area of the court room, wearing street clothes. The less fortunate, who couldn’t pay the bail bondsman, were led in from jail to the jury box, dressed in orange jumpsuits and manacled to their fellow inmates. Rushed attorney-client “conferences” were held, often in the jury box or in noisy hallways, where they could be overheard by any passerby. Attorneys darted from these conferences to the assistant district attorneys back in court. Sometimes cases were dismissed for lack of evidence. Other times, a client insisted on a trial, and a later date was set. But often, the attorney came back from the D.A. tete-a-tete with a deal in exchange for a plea. If the client took it, the next step was an appearance before the judge to say “guilty” or “no contest” and be sentenced usually to community service, a fine, and probation or “deferred adjudication,” meaning no conviction on the defendant’s record if he or she stays out of trouble in the future. The plea and sentencing often took 14 THE TEXAS OBSERVER OCTOBER 1, 1999