Local attorneys filed a lawsuit against the Smith County Commissioners Court, alleging non-payment of services rendered.
The suit stems from the court’s June decision to inform attorneys without formal contracts to represent children and parents involved in Child Protective Services cases in the 321st District Court that bills submitted beyond July 18 would not be paid.
Commissioners made the decision on June 18 following two funding transfers equaling $350,000 to cover budget overages. The 321st District Court’s 2013 budget for attorney fees to represent children removed from homes and indigent parents in those cases was $732,000.
Attorneys are seeking payment of more than $8,000 for services rendered before the July 18 deadline. However, bills were not submitted by the deadline.
County Judge Joel Baker would not comment on the pending lawsuit directly but said the June order was not intended to direct Judge Carole Clark’s court. The order was to notify the public of the commissioner court’s decision to defer payments of billings dated after July 18.
Attorneys named in the petition did not return requests for comment.
At the time, 321st District Court Judge Carole Clark said she was shocked and disappointed by the commissioner court's action. She said the court may have overstepped its budgetary bounds with regard to her ability as an elected official to provide attorneys for children and indigent adults.
Nine contract attorneys receive $6,500 each month, or $702,000 annually, from the county for handling child removal cases. Seven of the attorneys are assigned to represent children removed by CPS. Two of the attorneys represent parents in cases.
Smith County has 367 children placed in substitute care for a litany of reasons, from child endangerment and drug abuse to pending capital murder cases against parents.
Estimates by the auditor's office project spending for attorneys' fees to be more than $1.33 million by the end of fiscal year Sept. 30.
Baker, the county's budget officer, has been critical of Judge Clark's handling of her court’s budget, which he said already was well above comparable counties.
The Tyler Morning Telegraph contacted Jefferson County (Beaumont) Judge Randy Shelton, 279th District Court, who said his annual attorney budget to handle all juvenile cases, CPS cases and child support cases was around $160,000. Shelton's court and another district court split about 220 child removal cases evenly.
Judge Clark said the low expenditure amounts are an indication that attorneys are not attending to child removal cases as the law requires.
Attorneys assigned to represent children are mandated to visit foster homes every three to four months beyond three required court hearings.
Shelton acknowledged his and other court’s struggle to maintain “strict interpretation of the statutes and guidelines” within budget. He said all counties struggle to provide the service within budget constraints.
The suit was filed in the 241st District Court. No hearing date has been set.