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More on a public defender’s office for Harris County

Lisa Falkenberg keeps the ball rolling on the public defender’s office for Harris County idea by asking a few candidates for countywide office where they stand on it.

The Democrats seemed uncharacteristically united and on message.

“It promotes fairness and justice, period,” said former Houston Police Chief C.O. Bradford, Democrat for district attorney.

“I would make it a top priority of mine,” said businessman David Mincberg, Democrat for county judge.

Republicans, meanwhile, were stammering, indecisive, claiming ignorance or ordering up a task force or some other form of further study.

“It’s not something I have thought about,” said County Judge Ed Emmett, who faces Mincberg in a race to keep his job. “It’s on my plate for reading material.”

“It’s not really our decision,” said chief prosecutor Kelly Siegler, who faces former felony court judge Pat Lykos in the April 8 Republican primary runoff for district attorney.

“It’s going to take some considerable thought,” said Lykos. “We certainly can’t go on the way we are. And I certainly don’t have a visceral rejection of it by any stretch.”

She paused.

“That doesn’t make sense, what I just said, does it?”

It is a tougher question for Republicans, who are wary of any issue that might make them appear soft on crime.

And they acknowledged at some level the merits of proponents’ arguments, namely that the current system, in which lawyers are appointed by judges, doesn’t always provide indigent defendants a fair shot at justice, either in terms of resources or quality of counsel.

Lykos, the former judge, agreed that “there has to be more resources for indigent defense,” and allowed that a public defender office is “worth studying,” but she cautioned about some of the pitfalls, as relayed to her by judges in other parts of the country.

“If it’s not well-run, then you have the problem of them and the prosecutors kind of getting cozy with one another, if you will, and trading out and not vigorously representing their clients,” Lykos said.

Siegler, though she fairly argued that the issue wasn’t within the jurisdiction of the DA’s office, also said, “You know, if that ultimately turns out to be the way the people in charge decide to go, that’s fine with me.

” … I would say, from the last three months, with all the things that I learned about our system, about our office, about the appointment of defense lawyers, that there are changes that need to be made in all aspects,” Siegler said. “And I’ll tell you, a year ago, I didn’t know all that.”

Reading Siegler’s response raised a question for me: How would a public defender’s office get created in Harris County? Is this something the Lege would have to authorize and/or fund (which was my initial impression), or is it something the Commissioners Court can do? Judge Emmett’s comment at the end of the story that no one on the Court has mentioned this and that he himself has no intention of bringing it up makes me think it’s the latter, but I’m not sure.

Regardless, wherever the power to create this office rests, it’s certainly the case that the opinion of the District Attorney will be taken into account when and if the matter comes to the fore. A DA who strongly opposes a public defender could very well derail it, whereas one who loudly advocates for it can help make it happen. And of course, if this is within the purview of the Commissioners Court, then it seems pretty clear that David Mincberg would pursue this path, while Ed Emmett will not; at least, he won’t be an advocate, though he might go along if the other Commissioners say they want it. I don’t know how many votes might change based on a candidate’s position on this issue, but the distinction is there if it matters to you. I certainly think this is a good idea, and I hope there will continue to be a focus on it. Houtopia has more.

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One Comment

  1. Iain Simpson says:

    The power to create such an office would most likely lie with the Legislature. Both the District Attorney and the County Attorney offices exist because they are mandated by the Government Code. It would only make sense that a public defender’s office would be authorized in the same code.