County to visit public defender sites

January 25, 2014

As part of a review of Hood County’s indigent defense system, several members of the Commissioners Court intend to visit Burnet County’s fledgling Public Defender office as well as some of the other 15 Public Defender offices in the state.

Commissioners Jeff Tout and Steve Berry have been leading the review of the current court-appointment system. However, even though the county has reached the size that a Public Defender office might be a viable option, the commissioners are not convinced that it is the best or most cost-effective way to comply with the Fair Defense Act.

On Tuesday, the Commissioners Court held a workshop to discuss whether the county’s indigent defense system is in need of improvement. District Judge Ralph Walton and County Court-at-Law Judge Vincent Messina attended, as did several other county officials, including Sheriff Roger Deeds, Dean Armstrong from the County Clerk’s office, County Auditor Stan McBroom and Penny Weisend, Walton’s court administrator.

Tout, who represents Precinct 3, recently attended a Public Defender workshop in Austin sponsored by the Texas Indigent Defense Commission (TIDC). He stated that a frequent complaint of defendants not hearing often enough from their court-appointed attorneys is a complaint that is universal and not unique to Hood County.

Tout said he wants to make sure the county “is following guidelines from the state.” He added, however, that “our goal is to make sure the judicial system works, not to make sure people get as little time as possible.”

The TIDC offers four-year grants for county governments that want to stand up a public defender office. The grant pays 100 percent of the cost the first year, then less each year, with counties ultimately carrying the cost. Counties receive some state funding for indigent defense regardless of whether they have a court-appointment system or a public defender.

Walton said that he currently has 18 attorneys on the court-appointment “wheel” for his office. Messina, whose court handles misdemeanor cases, said he has about half that number. There is some overlap, the judges said, with some attorneys taking court appointments from both courts.

The judges said that appointment of counsel happens quickly once a defendant enters the justice system. Attorneys are required “to contact the defendant by the end of the first working day after the date on which the attorney is appointed,” stated Walton.

The discussion, which lasted about an hour-and-a-half, touched upon complaints about court-appointed lawyers that are received frequently by the newspaper and commissioners.

Both judges said they have removed attorneys from the court-appointment wheel who they felt were not adequately advocating for their clients.

However, the judges said that they hear very few complaints considering the large volume of cases that involve court-appointed attorneys. Walton said that probably 95 percent of the cases in his court involve indigent defendants. He also stated that the court system in Hood County operates at a brisk, efficient pace.

“We try 40 to 50 jury trials a year,” Walton said, adding that Hood County may possibly process more cases per year than any other courts in the state. Hundreds, “if not thousands,” of bench trials are conducted and “disposed of rapidly,” he said.

“Justice delayed is justice denied,” Walton said. “We don’t have that problem.”

the judges’ worries

Both Messina and Walton cautioned that they believe the cost of a Public Defender office would be prohibitive and that caseloads would be so heavy that staff attorneys might not be able to provide adequate representation.

“I’m not opposed to a Public Defender office. In fact, it would relieve me of a lot of responsibility,” said Walton. “But as a taxpayer, I’m not so enthusiastic about it.”

Walton researched the issue several years ago, but at that time the county was too small for a Public Defender office to be a good option.

Messina said that he is concerned about the county creating such an office with grant money, but then deciding to close it after the grant funding has gone away.

“How do you unring the bell at that point?” he said. “It’s a train wreck.”

Commissioners have long fretted about the rising cost of court-appointed lawyers, but Walton and Messina indicated that those costs will likely pale in comparison to a Public Defender office.

Messina said he is afraid that the county “will be paying more, but getting less. How hard is that going to be to explain (to taxpayers)?”

It was noted that parity is required for Public Defender offices. The cost to operate the District Attorney and County Attorney offices is about $750,000 annually, it was stated in the meeting, with the TIDC providing about $80,000 to help with the cost of indigent defense.

As for excessive caseloads, Messina stated: “If you look at the number of people who qualify for indigent defense in both felony court and misdemeanor court, that’s hundreds and hundreds of people. And if you’re going to make four lawyers handle what will probably be a 1,500-case-a-year docket, you’re talking about 300 or 400 files per lawyer.”

commissioners’ worries

Commissioners hold the county’s purse strings, and they are feeling pressure about how best to handle the matter of indigent defense – both in terms of increasing costs and complaints.

Berry said he feels unease about possible ex parte communications when defendants improperly write to judges. He also is disturbed at the possibility of retaliation against defendants when the judges inform court-appointed lawyers that they have received letters of complaint about them.

County Judge Darrell Cockerham said that he has spoken with Burnet County Judge Donna Klaeger and she told him that county officials believe the Public Defender office will be cost effective, even when the grant money runs out.

“The numbers don’t add up,” he said, referring to claims that the same type of office would be far too costly for Hood County.

Berry raised the possibility of a coordinator or ombudsman for the court-appointment system, but Messina said the county employee would do little more than “direct traffic” and do what he and Walton already do – forward written complaints to lawyers.

Cockerham told the Hood County News in an email Wednesday that he intends to accompany Berry and Tout when they make site visits to Public Defender offices because it is “an important issue.”

“I also believe that a decision on whether or not to have a Public Defender office should not be based on economics alone,” he wrote.

other viewpoints

According to the Texas Fair Defense Project, Public Defender offices “are not a panacea for excessive caseloads.”

“However, only a public defender office, which employs full-time attorneys who do not accept outside cases” can truly offer the best representation and case management, according to the organization’s 2009 publication “Benefits of a Public Defender Office.”

Other information in that publication appears to challenge some of the viewpoints expressed at the Hood County workshop regarding such issues as parity with prosecutors’ offices and employee retention.

Nevertheless, a Public Defender office is not one-size-fits-all, so members of the Commissioners Court will have challenges in determining what is best for Hood County. They could even decide that no changes are needed to the current system.

Last March, the Burnet County Public Defender office, which also provides indigent defense for three other counties, was given an award from the TIDC for following best practices in indigent defense.

Chief Public Defender Michelle Moore, who previously was with the Dallas County Public Defender office, was featured in the six-episode television series “Dallas DNA.” The show focused on the Dallas County District Attorney’s Conviction Integrity Unit – the first such unit in the nation.

Fort Worth defense attorney Mike Ware, who headed up the Conviction Integrity Unit during DA Craig Watkins’ first term and also was featured in “Dallas DNA,” disagrees with views expressed by some at Tuesday’s workshop that a Public Defender office would draw inexperienced attorneys who might not be able to make it in private practice.

“I’ve met public defenders from all over the state and all over the country,” Ware said. “With very few exceptions, I’ve never met a public defender that I wouldn’t hire to represent me or a member of my family.”

Berry said the site visits to Public Defender offices will be an opportunity to “look, listen, learn and ask questions” in order to determine the best fit for Hood County.

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