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A retired law professor and legal scholar said paying for Hidalgo County district court judges to attend continuing legal education courses is unjustified given modern technology negates the need to travel to legal conferences.
That was the reaction Geoffrey C. Hazard Jr., had to some travel reimbursement records showing judges spent thousands attending continuing legal education conferences in 2016 and one judge whose staff was reimbursed for attending a two-night retreat in a three-bedroom South Padre Island condominium. The judge who filed for the retreat reimbursement said he created it to “Encourage employees to embrace change and sharpen their skills. Team Building.”
The latter was what Judge Rodolfo “Rudy” Delgado of the 93rd District Court stated in a travel reimbursement request submitted in July 2016, for a retreat that occurred June 16-18. Records show a portion of Delgado’s reimbursement request was challenged by a staff member in the county auditor’s office headed by Ray Eufracio.
The reimbursement payment was one of 37 records obtained by the Progress Times, a result of a public records request for travel spending records for district court judges and their staffs. The records, covering the period from Nov. 1, 2015 through Nov. 30, 2016, were requested after members of the citizen’s watchdog group, Objective Watchers of the Legal System, expressed concerns Eufracio’s contract might not be renewed at the end of February after some judges were critical of Eufracio at a judge’s meeting in October.
The district court judges decide whether to renew Eufracio’s contract. They postponed their decision at a Nov. 30, 2016 judges meeting that was attended by about a dozen OWLS members.
Judge Rodolfo “Rudy” Delgado
Records show Delgado requested reimbursement $931 for the retreat that took place at the Saida Towers condominiums. The judge received $86.40 in mileage compensation and $562 for the three-bedroom condominium. County rules allow traveling court staff to spend up to $139 per day for lodging.
In an Aug. 18, 2016 email to Delgado’s office administrator, Joel Espinosa, Assistant County Auditor Zoraida Escamilla said she could not approve the judge’s requested $234.60 compensation for a tab from Louie’s Backyard restaurant citing the county’s $18 per diem dinner allowance for each employee. She went on to question why four employees who traveled to the same location each submitted separate mileage reimbursement requests. To resolve the matter Escamilla suggested one employee could be fully reimbursed or reimbursement could be divided among the four staff members.
Escamilla’s email prompted a response the next day from Delgado in which the judge said he believed the county should pay for the meal since he provided a receipt.
“I acknowledge that I did not research any specific provision of the county travel policy that would allow for the reimbursement of the actual cost of the meal nor will I cite one at this time,” Delgado wrote. “Nonetheless, I do not have the time nor the inclination to research the issue nor to argue the reasonableness of my request. Rather, I withdraw my request for reimbursement of the actual cost of the meal and will accept the per diem amount of $18.00 for my 4 staff members and myself.”
The auditor’s office paid Delgado $90.00 for the meal and reduced the total amount the judge was reimbursed to $786.40. Records show it was Eufracio who decided to reimburse each of Delgado’s four staff members for their mileage after Delgado argued his staff had to leave at staggered intervals in order to maintain coverage in his office. Eufracio also approved reimbursing Delgado’s staff for their remaining three days of meals bringing the total cost of the retreat to $1,285.00.
The Progress Times asked Prof. Hazard to comment on the expense. Hazard is a Trustee Professor of Law at the University of Pennsylvania Law School and Director Emeritus of the American Law Institute, “the leading independent organization in the U.S. producing scholarly work to clarify, modernize and otherwise improve the law,” according to its website. According to the University of Pennsylvania law school, “Hazard is perhaps the primary figure in legal ethics in the country today. His treatise, Civil Procedure, (Foundation, 5th ed. 2001) is a mainstay of American legal education.” And he is a former adviser to the American Bar Association’s Standing Committee on Ethics and Professional Responsibility.
Contacted via telephone at his California home Hazard said he believed the retreat expense was unnecessary.
“It seems odd to make such a trip at such an expense in order to improve working conditions of the group of associates in that office as you could do that staying home,” he said.
However Delgado said in a Jan. 6 telephone interview studies support the efficacy of retreats to bond professionals by bringing them together outside of the professional atmosphere.
“I don’t know if Professor Hazard has ever been a judge, obviously in academia, which is dealing with the theoretical aspect of law, which is far, far different than seeing people in front of us day in and day out who are charged with crimes or are going through a family dissolution or have been injured or killed or in some way maimed, is certainly different than in academia,” Delgado said in justifying the retreat. “And to say that we can all stay in our residential homes and accomplish the same things I beg to disagree.”
But Hazard also questioned whether judges should be reimbursed at all for travel expenses to conferences to obtain required continuing legal education credits when today most can be obtained online.
In Texas judges in their first year on the bench are required to obtain 30 hours of CLE but the number reduces to 16 hours annually thereafter.
Records obtained by the Progress Times show in 2016 Delgado attended four CLE conferences at a cost of $3,402.00 and with a total potential 57.25 CLE credit hours. In 2015 Delgado attended three CLE conferences at a cost of $2,107.45 with a potential of more than 50 hours of CLE.
But Delgado was not the top spender in 2015. In November 2015 Judge Jose R. “Bobby” Flores spent $2561.00 attending a five day conference presented by the American Institute of Justice at a posh resort in Hawks Cay, Florida where he could have obtained up to 20 CLE hours, according to a brochure included in his reimbursement request. And last year Flores, of the 139th District Court and who is presiding judge over all 11 Hidalgo County District Courts, spent $1,145.54 attending two CLE conferences.
Records show Judge Juan Partida of the 275th District Court spent $2,546.25 attending two CLE conferences in 2016. Also last year Judge Israel Ramon of the 430th District Court spent $2,283.91 on CLE and Judge Mario Ramirez Jr. of the 332nd District spent $1,653.04. Other judges and staffers submitted reimbursement requests of varying lesser amounts and at least one judge filed no requests for reimbursement.
In 2017 the courts were budgeted a combined $83,371 for court travel expenses, according to records provided by the county’s public information office. The figure is comprised of amounts each judge requested for anticipated travel expenses this year and range from a low of $600 requested by Judge Partida to $8,000 requested by both Delgado and Judge Luis M. Singleterry of the 92nd District Court.
Flores did not return a call requesting comment but Judge David Sanchez of the 444th District Court in Brownsville, Board Chairman of the Texas Center for the Judiciary – the organization that presents CLE training classes across the state – said there are many reasons for a judge to attend more CLE courses after obtaining the 16-hour required minimum. Saying he was speaking as a judge and not on behalf of the Texas Center for the Judiciary, Sanchez said judges whose courts see a variety of cases from civil to criminal benefit from a variety of CLE classes.
“The mere fact we get elected and don these black robes doesn’t mean we become omniscient in the law. So I think it’s important judges do their best to get themselves educated in the areas they’re going to have to make decisions in,” Sanchez said.
Delgado agreed citing an example when a judge might want to attend a CLE conference after having met the minimum number of hours required.
“If I have a case coming up in June which involves some areas of law and there happens to be a seminar wherein there are some specific speakers and are renowned experts, perhaps like Professor Hazard, I think it would be prudent for a judge to make an attempt to get freshened up [on the law] before getting perhaps 60-78 citizens of Hidalgo County to try to form a jury of 12 people to listen to the case.”
But Hazard disagreed saying in the age of the Internet there is no need to attend CLE courses at taxpayer’s expense.
“It seems an unnecessary expense and if it’s unnecessary it’s unjustified,” Hazard said.
But the 444th’s Sanchez argues online courses cannot always replace in person conferences where judges from different jurisdictions come together.
“You know beyond the classroom there’s really a lot of enrichment available – just open dialogue and discussion with other judges,” Sanchez said, “Because we’re prohibited from discussing our cases with anybody but other judges a judicial conference creates a venue where we can meet with other judges we normally wouldn’t see and it fosters discussion groups and ideas of trying to get answers to different questions we might have as judges with the different scenarios we might come across.”