The Harris County GOP and the PD

Harris County Republican Party Executive Committee resolution on the PD's office, "the official Harris County Republican Party position on this issue" as of October 2009, announced by HCRP Chairman Jared Woodfill a few days ago:

RESOLUTION SUPPORTING THE PRESENT HARRIS COUNTY PRIVATIZED INDIGENT DEFENSE SYSTEM

WHEREAS, Harris County for years has had a privatized outsourced indigent defense system that is effective and cost efficient; and,

WHEREAS, Harris County Republican Judges have done a good job raising standards for appointed attorneys and have allowed defense attorneys to do their jobs with any resource they need; and,

WHEREAS, jail overpopulation in Harris County can be solved with common sense economical reforms; and,

WHEREAS, switching to a public defender system will increase spending by 300 -500% $40-90 plus million at a time when property taxes are too high;

THEREFORE, BE IT RESOLVED that, given the current economic conditions, the Harris County Republican Party Executive Committee supports the present Harris County privatized indigent defense system and opposes a switch to any kind of a public defender program as it is anti-taxpayer, expensive and a solution in search of a problem.

Presented by Larry Bush, Chairman, Precinct 0641

(PDF)

The resolution is misleading and untrue.

Standards for appointed attorneys have been raised recently because of decades of shamefully low standards, and perhaps by pressure put on beneficiaries of the ad-hoc system (that is, lawyers who get court appointments and judges who get campaign contributions from them) by the prospect of a public defender's office.

There have always been some lawyers providing top-notch representation in the ad hoc appointment system. But even with standards raised, nightmare stories continue. "Raised standards" does not mean "acceptable representation."

I doubt that many court-appointed lawyers would agree that Harris County judges (Republican or Democratic) give them "any resource they need."

The Harris County Public Defender's Office is taking the difficult cases and providing services that were not available under the ad hoc system. Also, says Harris County Public Defender Alex Bunin,

We provide specially trained attorneys to handle misdemeanor mental health cases. Because those clients are the most expensive for the jail to detain, we save the County money when those cases are quickly resolved by treatment and placement outside the criminal justice system. We also provide the private assigned attorneys free legal training and advice that did not exist before the advent of our office.

Our highest value is probably the most difficult to measure in dollars. An organization of trained attorneys, investigators, social workers and other staff, is far more effective than even the best single assigned counsel. Competent legal representation requires assistance, as well as skill. No one would expect a prosecutor to bring cases without the help of other prosecutors, investigators, law enforcement, and an ample budget. Although we can never equal the prosecution’s resources, the analogy is apt.

The total budget for the Harris County Public Defender's Office is $9 million a year. Jared Woodfill claimed (in the 2012 email distributing the 2009 resolution) that "It is also important to note that a fully independent public defender system will cost taxpayers an estimated $30 million more per year than is currently being spent, which will almost certainly require a tax increase."

I asked Bunin about that allegation. His response: "Predictions that the Public Defender alone will cost $30M are unrealistic. Tripling the current office is supported by nobody, including me."

"$40-90 plus million" is a pipe dream.

Let's play a little game of "what's really going on here?" Why does the HCRP publish this resolution now, two years after it was adopted, more than a year after the creation of the Harris County Public Defender's Office, and when its fear mongering assumptions are clearly false?

First, the politics angle:

The HCRP supports incumbent Harris County District Attorney Pat Lykos. Mike Anderson is running for DA. The two may take different positions on the PD's office. (Lykos has good reason not to be a fan: she keeps getting handed her ass by the PD's office in speedy-trial motions on cases brought by her pet cold-case division.) If Lykos opposes the PD's office and Anderson favors it (I'm working on confirmation of that one), Woodfill can make Anderson look disloyal to the party:

As this is the official Harris County Republican Party position on this issue, we have urged our elected officials to honor the will of the Party and its activists by rejecting any attempts to subvert, weaken or eliminate the privatized, outsourced indigent defense system that has served the cause of justice so efficiently and effectively in Harris County.

Second, the greed angle:

Gary Polland, former chair of the HCRP, editor of the Texas Conservative Review, is highly influential in Harris County Republican politics. He also makes lots of money taking court appointments (over $400,000 in 2011), including in juvenile court and CPS cases (cases in which the Child Protective Services division of the Texas Department of Family and Protective Services seeks to take children away from their parents) in family court.

The PD's Office has taken business away from the court-appointed lawyers in the criminal courts, where Polland makes part of his living. This is a given.

The current metafight for the Harris County Public Defender's Office is in the outwardly corrupt-seeming juvenile courts. The PD's Office wants to do the job in those courts that the Harris County Commissioners' Court has given it, but some of the juvenile-court judges don't want to release their profitable control over the appointment of counsel (they can't expect campaign contributions from the PD). Polland, as a beneficiary of the ad hoc system, is aligned on the judges' side of that fight. His livelihood is threatened by the PD's Office.

There is a move afoot in Travis County PD's office to put the PD's Office on CPS cases. Polland is reportedly worried about that coming here as well.

Sometimes good policy happens to be good for the policymakers. If political leaders' self-interest dictate policy and they use untruth to support that policy, though, that's not "conservatism" but kleptocracy.

About Mark Bennett

Mark Bennett got his letter of marque from the Supreme Court of Texas in May 1995. He is famous for having no sense of humor when it comes to totalitarianism.
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10 Responses to The Harris County GOP and the PD

  1. Robb Fickman says:

    I do not know what the political motivation is for the release of this resolution. Here are a couple of facts for Woodfill to chew on:

    1. The Harris County Court appointed system has many fine lawyers who do great work. The system also produced a lawyer who slept during a capital murder trial. The court appointed system continues to reward certain lawyers for moving cases rather than providing quality representation.

    2. A few years ago the Court Appointed system reflected that 10 Court appointed lawyers had moved 3000 felony cases in one year. That is 300 felonies per lawyer in one year. The ABA standards call for a maximum case load of 150 felony cases for a fully supported public defender. These 10 lawyers, if you want to call them that, moved human beings by pleading them guilty with lightning speed. This is but one example of the many disgraceful aspects of the Court appointed system.

    3. The Public Defenders Office has already improved the quality of indigent representation. Alex Bunin has organized a top quality group of dedicated defense lawyers drawn from our own ranks. The public defenders office will hopefully replace the sorriest elements of the court appointed system, while still allowing for the appointment of the great lawyers who take appointments and do an outstanding job.

    It took years of hard fights by many people to bring The Public Defenders Office to Harris County. The Office enjoys widespread community support, support among the defense bar and the judiciary. Mr. Woodfill can not rewind the clock to the dark and grim days of our past. Let him use his resolutions as he likes. But any attempt to dismantle the Public Defenders Office will ignite all of us who fought for the Office. That is a fight Mr Woodcock will loose.

    Robb Fickman

  2. Thomas Stephenson says:

    The fact that one lawyer can make $400,000 in a year off court appointments highlights the problems with the ad hoc court appointment system.

    How on earth do you make $400,000 a year on court appointments? You’ve got to be taking an extremely high volume of cases to pull that off.

    This happens in way too many counties with ad hoc indigent defense. Judges reward appointed lawyers who they know they can rely on to get the cases off their dockets with more court appointments, while depriving those who don’t move the cases (you know, the ones who actually do some lawyering.)

    But then it’s hardly surprising to find out that the party of “law and order” supports a policy whose end result is easier convictions.

  3. I’m still trying to rationalize how in the hell Gary Polland made over $400,000. When was the last time anyone saw him try a case or even argue a motion? He certainly seems to like throwing his weight and “influence” around over there, as well.

  4. It was very interesting
    I am Fatemeh Ghanbari
    Lawyer and university professor
    Of Iran

  5. David Kiatta says:

    $400K in court appointed income? Are you serious. Surely the case load for someone to earn that kind of money has to exceed every standard there is.

    I’ve heard that some people are appointed to represent juveniles in non-arrest cases. I’m not sure if this is true or not. If it is, How can a lawyer be appointed to represent someone who hasn’t requested a lawyer or an indigency finding hasn’t been made.

    • I’m of the view that everyone charged with a crime should get a court-appointed lawyer if they want one. When the government drags people into the arena, why should only the poor be armed at government expense?

  6. David Kiatta says:

    But how can you appoint a lawyer to someone who hasn’t been arrested? What are the lawyers doing to earn money on no arrest cases?

    But hey if it’s ok to do it for juveniles then let’s do it for adults too.

  7. Tom Zakes says:

    The increase in standards for criminal defense attorneys is in part a response to the Fair Defense Act, a state law passed by the 77th legislature. There has been talk about a public defender’s office long before the FDA passed, which historically was opposed by the organized bar in Harris County. To this day, many private attorneys still oppose the concept of a PD office, although quite a few are now warming to the idea, seeing the good job director Al Bunin has done with it.

    The HCRP itself does not support or oppose any candidate in a primary. That is why we have the elections. Obviously, individual leaders in the party choose who they prefer in each race, and there is now a mechanism for their endorsements to be publicized on the party website before the election.

    I don’t know if Lykos wants to get rid of the PD office, but by way of determining Mike Anderson’s position (which is unclear, according to the post) he and Judge Lykos were on Red White and Blue on PBS. He was asked about the PD office by Gary Polland. Between minutes 21 and 22, he says that he was originally was against it, but that what is in place now is a 4 year pilot program that will be evaluated by the judges afterward. A link to the show is on Pat Lykos’s campaign website. (Patlykos.com)

    By the way, Larry Bush, the author of the 2009 resolution is listed on Judge Anderson’s website as endorsing him for DA, which kind of shoots a hole in the party leadership conspiracy theory.

    • Mark Bennett says:

      Thanks for the insights, Tom.

      By the way, Larry Bush, the author of the 2009 resolution is listed on Judge Anderson’s website as endorsing him for DA, which kind of shoots a hole in the party leadership conspiracy theory.

      Not necessarily. Bush may have nothing to do with the 2012 publication of the resolution. The devil, when pressed, can cite scripture to his advantage.
      It has been pointed out to me that Anderson was the administrative judge at the time of the creation of the PD’s Office. Those who oppose his candidacy might well try to foist that on an ignorant electorate as responsibility for the PD’s Office (which the criminal judges unanimously approved, as I understand it).

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