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In re Fletcher

Court of Appeals of Texas, First District

August 13, 2019

IN RE SIMON FLETCHER, Relator

          Original Proceeding on Petition for Writ of Mandamus

          Panel consists of Justices Keyes, Higley, and Landau.

          OPINION

          SARAH BETH LANDAU JUSTICE.

         Relator, Simon Fletcher, filed an application for writ of mandamus seeking to compel the respondent county court at law judge to (1) vacate the "Order Removing Appointed Counsel" and the "Order Denying Defendant's Ex Parte Motion to Reverse Removal of Court-Appointed Attorney" and (2) reinstate Drew Willey as his appointed trial counsel in the underlying criminal misdemeanor proceeding.[1] The real party in interest filed a response. For the reasons below, we conditionally grant the petition.

         Background

         In spring 2017, Fletcher was arrested for the misdemeanor of driving while intoxicated in Chambers County. See Tex. Penal Code § 49.09(a). In July 2017, he was charged by criminal complaint and information. Two months later, the respondent, the Honorable Jimmy Sylvia, Chambers County Court Judge, [2] signed an order finding Fletcher indigent and appointing Drew Willey as Fletcher's trial counsel.

         Almost a year after his appointment, shortly before his scheduled paternity leave, Willey wrote to the administrative assistant in the County Judge's office, informing her that he "did not want [his] name to be reactivated for potential appointments in Chambers County." More than a month later, the assistant emailed Willey asking him to complete and return an "Attorney Affidavit" requesting "Exclusion From the Appointment List." Willey explained in his affidavit that "[t]he inadequate compensation [for appointed counsel] and conflicts of interests, namely, the [Chambers] County Attorney controlling the judicial offices, makes it impossible to continue to provide effective assistance of counsel." A month after Willey handed in the affidavit, the assistant emailed Willey asking him if he wished to remain as Fletcher's counsel, and he responded that he did. Willey did not file a motion to withdraw as counsel for Fletcher.

         The respondent, however, had already removed Willey from the case. Three days earlier, the respondent signed an "Order Removing Appointed Counsel." The order stated that the respondent was removing Willey as Fletcher's appointed counsel for good cause because Willey was "no longer on appointment list" and that new counsel would be appointed according to the Chambers District and County Court Plan. The respondent signed another order finding Fletcher indigent and appointing Chiquia J. Roberson as Fletcher's counsel.

         On November 13, 2018, the respondent signed a letter to Willey explaining his decision to remove Willey as Fletcher's counsel and appoint new counsel. Because Willey had "not withdrawn [his] affidavit," based on Willey's "sworn statement," the respondent believed that he "had no choice but to appoint counsel to [Willey's] clients who felt confident in their ability to effectively represent the clients." The respondent further explained that if the two "differences [Willey had] with the county truly prohibit [him] from effectively advocating for any potential future client," then, in the respondent's view, "they would also inhibit [Willey's] ability to represent the clients to whom [he was] already appointed."

         On December 3, 2018, Willey filed an "Ex Parte Motion to Reverse Removal of Court-Appointed Attorney," seeking reconsideration of the respondent's September 25, 2018 Order removing him as Fletcher's counsel. Three days later, the respondent signed an order denying this motion.

         A few weeks later, Willey filed this mandamus petition contending that the respondent lacked authority to discharge appointed counsel over Fletcher's and Willey's objections and that no adequate remedy at law exists. Willey sought to vacate the September 25, 2018 order removing him as Fletcher's counsel and the December 6, 2018 order denying his motion for reconsideration, and to reinstate him as Fletcher's counsel.

         Per this Court's order, counsel for the respondent, Judge Sylvia, responded. He contended that he had the authority to remove Willey for good cause, or a "principled reason," based on Willey's affidavit asking the county to remove him from the appointment list. Because Willey had stated that he could not provide effective assistance of counsel in Chambers County, the respondent argued that the order protected Fletcher's rights by removing Willey and appointing new counsel who could provide effective assistance of counsel, under Chambers County's Indigent Defense Plan.

         Mandamus Relief for Sua Sponte Removal of Appointed Counsel

         To be entitled to mandamus relief, a relator must satisfy two requirements: (1) there must be no adequate remedy at law to redress his alleged harm; and (2) the relator must have a clear right to the relief sought. Buntion v. Harmon, 827 S.W.2d 945, 947 (Tex. ...


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