Over the years I've dealt out plenty of criticism on this blog. I would also like to think that I've given credit where it's due, as well.
One of the targets of my criticism has been Judge Michael Fields, the presiding judge of Harris County's Criminal Court at Law No. 14. Well, today Judge Fields is on the receiving end of some praise.
Last week Judge Fields revealed to Chris Tritico, the President of the Harris County Criminal Lawyers Association, that he has instituted a new docket control plan in his court. From now on a defendant will appear for an arraignment setting and then, if he has already hired an attorney, his case will be reset for four months.
The next appearance by the defendant will be a motions setting and then the case will either be set for plea in 30 days or trial in 60 days.
In the meantime the attorney is expected to investigate the case and attempt to work it out with prosecutors.
The new plan frees defendants from having to take off work to come to court for meaningless settings while the case is pending. For those of y'all not familiar with the way in which the criminal courts operate, most settings involve the defense attorney thumbing through the file looking to see if there's anything new and then taking a stab at convincing the prosecutor to dismiss the case. Then a reset is signed and the entire process repeats itself three to four weeks down the road.
Of course there is a price to pay for such a change - the defense attorney will have to put together a checklist and a calendar for each case in order to make sure he or she is doing the work that needs to be done in the meantime. Motions will have to be drafted and filed. Informal discovery will need to be conducted. Meetings with prosecutors will have to be scheduled.
But, then, that's what we're paid to do. The new plan will force attorneys to be disciplined enough to get the work done when it needs to get done. It will also make it easier for our clients to fight their cases without worrying about losing their job because of court appearances.
And then there's the issue of payment. It's not unusual for an attorney to set a fee, collect a portion of it upfront and then collect the rest each court appearance. The new docket plan will force attorneys to do a better job of either collecting the fee upfront or at least collecting a larger portion of the fee upfront. It will place the onus on the attorney to collect his fee while the case is pending. It will also force the attorney to make a decision on whether or not to withdraw due to non-payment of the fee earlier in the case.
For defendants and for defense attorneys, Judge Fields' new plan is a vast improvement over the way things operate at 1201 Franklin and I give the judge kudos for being innovative in trying to figure out how to move his docket.
Bondsmen, on the other hand, may not be so happy with the plan. If a person doesn't need to be in court for a four month stretch, there is little the bonding company can do if he decides to skip out. So long as he checks in with the bonding company by telephone every week they won't have any idea whether or not the defendant is even in the state. Whether this will result in higher bonding fees or more contractual conditions for cases in Judge Fields' court remains to be seen.
All in all it's a step in the right direction.