May 03, 2024

Navigating Legal Frontiers: Rural Texas Struggles With Too Few Lawyers

Reporting Texas

In rural Sutton County, where 3,200 residents live on the western edge of the Texas Hill Country, Tammy Fisher juggles her law practice with her family-owned goat and sheep ranch and her leadership of the local historical society and tourism board. 

As a lawyer, she can be helping clients with estate planning one moment and filing emergency petitions the next. But she sometimes can’t find a judge within 200 miles of her. 

“We’re still in the wild west,” Fisher said. “Our district judge travels 200 miles from courthouse to courthouse. I may have to chase him halfway across the state of Texas to get in his court that day.”

Rural Texas counties  face major legal system challenges, especially providing legal defense. Rural Texans charged with misdemeanors are four times less likely to have access to a lawyer than defendants in urban areas, according to the Deason Criminal Justice Reform Center at Southern Methodist University in Dallas.

“We are at a crisis moment right now in Texas, in terms of the lack of lawyers in rural Texas,” said Scott Ehlers, the executive director of the Texas Indigent Defense Commission, a state agency charged with funding, overseeing and improving legal defense for those who can’t afford a lawyer.

In 2021, over 65 counties in Texas had no local lawyer accept an appointment to defend an adult client according to a report from the Deason Center. 

“There are some rural counties in Texas, with literally no attorneys registered with a business address,” said Andrew Davies, the director of research at the Deason Center.

The lack of access to legal expertise in rural counties conflicts with the rights of the accused to have legal defense, as stated in the Sixth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.

“This is a constitutional issue; you have to have this lawyer available,” Davies said.

This is not solely a Texas issue. American Bar Association data show that in 2020 over 1,300 counties, almost all rural, had fewer than 1 attorney per 1,000 residents. For perspective, in New York City the number sits at 14 attorneys per 1,000 residents. 

“We’re lacking,” said Hal Rose, the county judge for Kimble County, which has over 4,000 residents across over 1,250 square miles surrounding the county seat of Junction, west of San Antonio. “There’s only one local county attorney that’s available to accept court-appointed indigent criminal matters.” 

Meanwhile, rural law enforcement and prosecutors are getting additional funding. In February, the Texas comptroller announced $125 million in grants for rural law enforcement and prosecution offices. Even as rural counties welcome that additional funding, they say that increased funding for law enforcement requires additional support for other parts of the legal system.

“I’m not complaining about funds going to law enforcement,” Rose said, but he noted “an imbalance between the law enforcement and prosecution side.”

“If we’re putting the resources into law enforcement, that means there’s going to be potentially an increased number of criminal cases filed and needing prosecution, but that also means there’s going to be an increased number of indigent defendants that require court appointed attorneys,” Rose said.

A lack of rural public defenders offices mean that rural counties are often dependent on private individual lawyers to meet their needs — and those lawyers can sometimes be scarce in rural areas.

“I am absolutely not complaining about indigent defendants that qualify being appointed defense counsel, but rural counties struggle mightily to meet that financial burden,” Rose said.

A report by the Deason Center titled “Greening Criminal Legal Deserts in Rural Texas” proposes increasing rural public defense offices, creating educational pipelines and providing financial incentives to lawyers in the form of student loan repayments.

The Texas Indigent Defense Commission operates a rural grant program to help counties pay for regional public defender’s offices.

“Courts are having to structure their dockets around when attorneys are available to come out, but if you have a public defender office, they’re there all the time,” Ehlers said.

But Elhers said providing incentives to lawyers to move to rural areas remains a need to be addressed.

The Deason Center’s report points to rural medicine as a model for creating a pipeline of professionals ready to work in rural areas. Some medical schools reserve admission spots for rural students who want to practice rural medicine, and the experts said law schools could do something similar.

“I would be really pleased if some of that resources were dedicated to stuff like programs to forgive loans of lawyers who work in rural places,” Davies said.