Lawyers who donate to judicial campaigns get more indigent defense appointments, study finds

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A study of lawyer appointments has found that judges were more likely to appoint lawyers who had contributed to their election campaigns to represent indigent defendants than they were to appoint nondonors.

The study, set to be published in the Duke Law Journal, found that judges in Harris County, Texas, assigned to donors more than double the number of cases that they assigned to nondonors, the New York Times reports.

“We find indigent defense appointments can be surprisingly lucrative, with many donor attorneys earning tens or even hundreds of thousands of dollars across the hundreds of cases assigned to them by their donee judges,” the study authors write in a study summary.

The study also found that donor lawyers are less successful than nondonors in avoiding prison sentences and in attaining charge reductions, dismissals and acquittals.

The average donor lawyer earns about $31,000 in attorney fees from the donee judge, representing a 27-fold return on campaign contributions, the study says.

The appointment process is used in hundreds of jurisdictions across the country. In Harris County, which includes Houston, there is a public defender’s office, but it handled only 3% of indigent cases during the study time frame.

The study was conducted by Neel Sukhatme, a professor at the Georgetown University Law Center, and lawyer Jay Jenkins of the Texas Criminal Justice Coalition. It tracked more than 290,000 felony cases between January 2005 and May 2018.

Several changes could help address the problem. One is to end the election of judges, a practice that is unlikely to change. Another is to establish independent public defender offices. A third solution is to bar lawyers who donate to judges from receiving an appointment for a set time period. A fourth is to transfer the appointment power to an independent agency.

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