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State appellate courts in Texas should be able to boost salaries for their attorneys, but not by as much as they had hoped. An agreement was reached on May 6 by the Texas House-Senate conference committee that is working on the two-year state budget. A House Appropriations Committee staff member says the conferees agreed to provide almost $3.6 million in new money to the 14 midlevel appellate courts for the next two years. The agreement would provide the Texas Supreme Court and the Court of Criminal Appeals $378,186 each in additional funding, the staff member says. “All raises are always appreciated, but a great deal more money is needed to bring those salaries up to the necessary amount,” says 4th Court of Appeals Chief Justice Phil Hardberger. “It can’t do anything but help, but it’s still not where it needs to be,” Tyler, Texas’ 12th Court of Appeals Chief Justice Leonard Davis says. Hardberger, who has headed the San Antonio appeals court since 1997, told the Senate Finance Committee in an April 23 report that salaries must be increased to enable the appellate courts to compete with the private sector for minority attorneys. He also recommended that the courts be more aggressive in recruiting minorities and that steps be taken to enable law schools to be more inclusive in their admissions. In a study requested by the finance panel, Hardberger found that only 10.3 percent of the law clerks and staff attorneys employed by Texas appellate courts are minorities. Hardberger says the salaries for appellate court attorneys make it difficult for the courts to compete with the private sector, where new associates can earn $125,000 or more a year. “Yet, we’re trying to get them for $50,000 or so,” Hardberger says. “When you’re only able to pay the salaries we’re able to pay, you can’t compete,” says Linda Thomas, chief justice of the 5th Court of Appeals in Dallas. Bill Hamilton, the Office of Court Administration’s deputy director for finance and operations, says staff attorneys for the appellate courts currently earn, on the average, from $50,000 to $55,000 a year. Hardberger says the intermediate appeals courts originally requested $5.7 million in additional funding but unanimously agreed to $3.59 million after the state House and Senate passed different versions of the appropriations bill, resulting in the appointment of the conference committee. Salary increases for legal staff is the top priority, although the various courts will use some funds for other needs, he says. Davis says the 12th Court is “very satisfied” with the formula that the conference committee agreed to use but that some appeals courts did not fare as well. The budget doesn’t include funding to continue the strike forces that the Legislature created in 1999 to reduce the backlog of cases in the appellate courts in Dallas and Houston. Thomas says the Dallas and Houston courts didn’t ask to continue the strike forces but did request funding for additional personnel. She says the funding approved by the conferees will provide the 5th Court with $674,076 in new money, some of which could be used to hire two new attorneys or retain two of the six attorneys now working in the court’s strike force. “We might try to run some kind of modified strike force,” Thomas says. While Thomas predicts that the 5th Court will use some of the money that’s appropriated to increase salaries for legal staff and other court employees, she says the court won’t make any decisions until after the Legislature finalizes the budget. GIVE AND TAKE The state’s two highest courts also will receive less than they wanted. Hamilton says the Texas Supreme Court had requested about $1 million in new funds for the biennium and the Court of Criminal Appeals asked for a $1.7 million increase. “That’s part of the checks and balances,” Texas Supreme Court Chief Justice Tom Phillips says about the lower funding amount approved by the conferees. “We take what the Legislature gives us.” CCA Presiding Judge Sharon Keller has no complaints about the funding level that conferees agreed to for her court. “We can live with it,” Keller says. “The Legislature worked very hard to come up with a fair way to appropriate money to the courts.” Hardberger says the funding will not enable the courts to achieve the racial diversity in legal staff that lawmakers say they want the courts to have. While he says the money is important, Hardberger’s report suggested other steps that can be taken to attract minority attorneys. Either the Office of Court Administration or the courts should establish a minority recruitment committee that could coordinate programs to be presented at minority bar associations, in Texas law schools and in the legal community, the report said. Hardberger says the courts traditionally hire only lawyers who submit applications but should be aggressively recruiting minority lawyers. The 4th Court, for the first time this year, will send Justice Alma Lopez to minority job fairs in Atlanta and Dallas to make face-to-face contact with minorities graduating from law schools, he says. Thomas says the 5th Court participates in job fairs and also sends job opening notices to minority bar associations around the state and to every member of the Legislature, but the salaries that the court can offer make it difficult to hire qualified minority attorneys. Hardberger’s report also cited a bill that he says could provide a way to increase the number of minority law students. H.B. 1641 would prohibit law schools from using students’ scores on standardized tests as the sole criterion for determining admissions. The House passed the bill on April 4, and the Senate on May 10.

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