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:


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


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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