EXCLUSIVE: Unpaid attorneys take Smith Co. to court

EXCLUSIVE: Unpaid attorneys take Smith Co. to court

County leaders were served Thursday morning with a petition for Writ of Mandamus. The complaint, filed Monday in District Court, calls for a ruling that would force the county to pay attorneys for their work in the county's family court between July 18, 2013 and present.

The saga of unpaid family lawyers goes back to June of this year when county commissioners and Judge Joel Baker begrudgingly approved a final last expansion of the 321st District Court's budget. With several months left in the fiscal year, Baker said at that point it was clear someone had to control the spending.

"To finish out the year, if we let things go, it would cost $1,332,000 dollars," he said on June 19. "And we just can't do that. There are too many other needs in the county."

A week later Judge Carole Clark--the one responsible for the court's budget--defended the spending.

"What do you compare that to?" she said on June 25. "A decade ago families were more intact than they are now."

Clark said there are more cases than ever and that the county has understaffed her main group of lawyers who handle them. She turned to outside help--paid at a comparatively reasonable $75 an hour.

Five of those outside attorneys have filed a case against the county.

Their complaint says they were told to drop the cases they were working on when commissioners ordered that no work done after July 18 would be paid. But the State Bar of Texas advised them they could not ethically withdraw from several cases.

The attorneys say they continued their work on those cases. According to invoices submitted for payment, they racked up $6,795 dollars in fees that have not been paid.

The attorneys accuse the commissioners court of voting to decline payment without reviewing the "reasonableness" of the invoices. They cite laws and cases which they believe clearly establish that they are supposed to be paid from the general fund of the county even if that amount exceeds the amount budgeted.

Those attorneys want the county's official order about not paying for work done past July 18 struck down. They also want commissioners forced to authorize payment.

County leaders said the county attorney would not let them comment.

One of the five attorneys who filed the complaint declined to comment. The other four did not return phone calls.


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