A scream reverberated through the offices of the Texas Access to Justice Foundation this morning, as its executive director watched a live broadcast of proceedings in the Texas House. “I couldn’t help it. I couldn’t help but scream,” says Betty Balli Torres (pictured), who leads the agency that manages indigent civil legal aid in Texas. Representatives approved an amendment on a general appropriations bill that would add $17.6 million over the biennium for indigent civil legal aid, as well as $7.6 million for indigent criminal defense. Torres and Wesley Shackelford, deputy director and special counsel of the Task Force on Indigent Defense, used the word “roller coaster” to describe their feelings while observing this year’s legislative session. “It was such a yo-yo in the regular session,” says Shackelford about efforts to secure an indigent-defense appropriation. Bills proposing increased filing fees and new court costs to fund civil and criminal legal aid died in the regular session, came back to life in the special session but went nowhere. Supreme Court justices roamed the halls of the Texas Capitol warning lawmakers that the justice system and the rule of law would break down without the funding. The Senate on June 3 added an appropriation for indigent civil legal aid and indigent defense to Senate Bill 2, only to see the House Appropriations Committee remove the funding in its substitute version of the bill. But this morning, Appropriations Committee Chairman Rep. Jim Pitts, R-Waxahachie, added the funding back with an amendment on S.B. 2, and the House voted to pass the bill to third reading, scheduled for tomorrow. Now, the House and Senate versions include the same language about indigent legal aid funding. If the bill moves to conference committee, lawmakers would only focus on smoothing out differences. Aaron Gregg, chief of staff for Pitts, didn’t immediately return a telephone call seeking comment. “I’m very grateful to the members of the Legislature who have seen the importance of this funding to providing legal services for the poor and protecting the rule of law,” says Supreme Court Justice Nathan Hecht, liaison to the Texas Access to Justice Commission, who talked with more than 20 lawmakers about the importance of appropriating the funding.
-- Angela Morris