The Rorschach Ink-Blot Debate

There was something for everyone last night; supporters of Kelly Siegler liked how she came out, supporters of Jim Leitner thought he clearly won. Supporters of Doug Perry saw a honest, nice man who would be the right guy for the job if the job were what he thinks it is: a CEO / ambassador position that doesn’t involve leading 250+ trial lawyers. Even supporters of Pat Lykos thought their candidate looked most like a district attorney.

One of the two candidates who has never tried a criminal case (Doug Perry) took some heat for it. The other (Pat Lykos) got a free pass; I wonder if the candidates seriously believe that presiding over criminal cases as a judge is somehow equivalent to trying them as a prosecutor. It isn’t.

Here (part I) and here (part II) is KHOU’s video of the debate. Here is the Chronicle’s coverage. Here, here, and here are AHCL’s other posts about the debate.

Jim was unscripted, fluent, and passionate. Pat was the opposite, but had a big made-for-TV smile on. Doug Perry was a decent human being, a little out of his depth. Kelly seemed uncharacteristically nervous; she could have stood to have smiled a bit (though I did notice her holding back a laugh both times Pat said “rule of law”).

Almost everyone seemed to agree that there were problems with the culture of the DA’s office. Everyone but Kelly, who (for obvious reasons) argued that Chuck was the whole problem.

There is certainly a public perception that the Harris County DA’s Office suffers from a culture of arrogance.

Is this perception well-founded (and therefore fair)? Yes. The Office has been opaque in recent memory, and every time its culture has come to the public’s attention, arrogance has been revealed.

Is it fair to hold Kelly partly responsible for this perception? Absolutely. Kelly has been the single most prominent member of the Office in the last eight years; she rose to prominence in Chuck Rosenthal’s Office. That Office is a bureaucracy. If Kelly had been an agent for change in Chuck Rosenthal’s Office, or if she had even sought change, there would be a record — a memo, an email, meeting notes — of it somewhere. If she, a division chief (only the First Assistant and Chuck Rosenthal rank higher than her on the organizational chart), was not an agent for change — if she didn’t even try to change things — then it’s not unfair to hold her accountable for the DA’s office culture, even if — as AHCL insists — Chuck kept his own counsel.

Is the public perception that the Harris County DA’s Office suffers from a culture of arrogance accurate? As an outsider more acquainted with the office than most of the public, I’ve been saying so for years. (A search of my hard drive reveals that I first used the phrase “culture of arrogance” in writing in March 2006 when a young prosecutor berated a jury for its verdict, the jury complained, and the elected DA criticized the jurors for complaining. At the time I believe Kelly Siegler was in charge of the Office’s Professional Development Program, which should have been instructing young lawyers in their ethical duties as well as winning at all costs.)

I think a culture of arrogance is an inevitable result of taking callow lawyers — children, really, with no experience of the difficulties that most of the humans passing through the courthouse suffer every day (do I exaggerate? AHCL earnestly described January as the “the worst month of [ADAs’] professional lives“) — and putting them in charge of deciding which of those humans go to prison and which go free without ethical adult supervision.

Is it fair to hold Kelly partly responsible for this truth? Absolutely, and for the same reasons that would be fair to hold her responsible for the perception even if the perception were not true. Further, Kelly’s own philosophy, stated in the public TV candidates’ debate last week — “our job is to decide who is guilty and then do everything possible to convict them” — may play well with the voters, but it is not the law (as — it pains me to say this — Pat Lykos keeps saying), and it expresses the essence of prosecutorial arrogance

It is not only the defense lawyers and public who have noticed the arrogance of the Rosenthal-Siegler DA’s office; judges have noticed as well. A judge who came to the bench directly from the Office (as though that narrows things down at all) commented to me recently that the uncertainty in the DA’s Office might make some prosecutors less arrogant. “They need it,” he said.

(The last six weeks of uncertainty, incidentally, have worked wonders on the prosecutors’ arrogance. It is a rare public servant whose attitude is not improved by the realization that he serves at the pleasure not only of the Republican Party but also of the human beings who vote in the elections. The difference down at the courthouse has been conspicuous.)

As much as change is needed in the DA’s office, however, Pat Lykos said nothing in yesterday evening’s debate to convince me that she will bring better change than Kelly Siegler. I think Kelly would make a better DA than Pat Lykos. So why do I pick on her? Because for some reason I expect better of her.

Given that the debate wasn’t likely to change anyone’s mind, I thought of a question that I wish had been asked of the candidates:

If not you, then who? Who is the second-most-qualified candidate for the position you seek?

I’ve emailed the candidates to ask them.

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0 responses to “The Rorschach Ink-Blot Debate”

  1. Arrogance?

    Why you slime-sucking, criminal defending, enabler! You weak-kneed, pedophile loving liberal!!!

    They’re not arrogant. Just misunderstood.

  2. Mark,

    I suspect certain amount of “strut and swagger” are necessary to effectively do the job of Assistant D.A.. In fact, it is my feeling that all trial lawyers display, what in common circles, would be considered a high degree of self confidence. Let’s face it, standing up in front of a group of strangers and convincing them to either aquit or convict a person can’t be easy. I do find it interesting, however, that lawyers with very little “real life” or legal experience regard themselves as technically, legally or experientially equal to those who have been in the profession for a much longer period of time. In fact, I find it laughable that anyone would seriously suggest that it would be good thing to have as the next D.A. of the 3rd largest county in the Nation a person with as monolithic prior work experience as Ms. Seigler.

    Kelly Seigler, like most of the lawyers at the Harris County D.A.’s office, has had the grand total experience of trying cases in two court houses. And the only reason it’s two instead of one, is because the other one was shut down. Most have never handled a divorce, a contract dispute, a child custody matter or even so much as a Forcible Entry suit in J.P. court! As ADA’s they have the benefit of free office space, secretaries, investigators and the good will of a public eager to convict whomever they present as a suspect. And as you have so aptly pointed out, most have only presented cases in front of a Judiciary made up of their former colleagues, fresh from the D.A.’s office themselves. Is there any wonder, when you consider how stacked the deck is in their favor, that they might be just a little full of themselves?! The D.A.’s office needs a fresh face with a broader range of experience. Someone who has been around the block and understands what the average person, the average lawyer has to go through on a daily basis. I think then you’ll find those subordinate to the D.A. adopting a more reasonable stance on cases and issues such as the death penalty.

  3. I find it interesting that when you discuss the Rosenthal/Siegler office, you act as if she is the only member of your suspected “inner-circle”. Who else is in there? Bert Graham? Lyn McClellan? Ted Wilson? Marie Munier? Don Smyth? Joe Owmby? Marc Brown? Denise Nassar? Luci Davidson? Dan Rizzo?

    Why is it always the Rosenthal/Siegler office when you list it? Isn’t that rather selective in whom you wish to pass the blame to? Is it just solely because Kelly is a candidate?

    Because if you take the disgrace of Rosenthal out of the race, Kelly becomes a much easier choice, doesn’t she? Not perfect, of course, but much easier.

    If you wanted to hit the nail on the head, I think you would be better off labeling it the Rosenthal/Harrison/Blakemore office, quite frankly.

    As to who the candidates would pick to finish “second”, I’m pretty sure we could guess that Kelly would pick Jim. Lykos would pick a clone of herself who had entered as a write-in candidate. Perry would pick Barack Obama.

    The real question would be who would Jim pick? Nobody seems to know at the moment, although rumors are swirling. I’d be genuinely interested in knowing the answer to that question.

    And while you are asking him about who he would pick, would you please ask him about his interactions with Lycos that occurred just prior to him filing to run? (NOTE: It’s nothing bad about Jim). I think that would be a pretty interesting story, too.

  4. Murf,

    Thanks for the comment. I tend to agree.


    Yes, it’s because a) Kelly is the highest-profile lawyer in the office; and b) Kelly is running to replace Chuck and, mostly, continue the Holmes-Rosenthal dynasty that has dragged us into this mess. Unfair? Really? Only if you believe that Chuck Rosenthal (with his investigator and assistant) was the entire problem with the office. Because that’s Kelly’s platform: ding dong the witch is dead! I am not, and have never been, a party to a culture of arrogance in the Harris County DA’s Office!

    The problem was much broader than just Chuck; I don’t believe you can truthfully deny that. If you could take Rosenthal’s disgrace out of the race, Kelly would either 1) not be a candidate, or 2) be Rosenthal’s handpicked successor, in which case I’d be even more opposed to her.

    But you can’t take Rosenthal’s disgrace out of the race. Nobody’ll drink that punch even after you’ve removed the turd from the bowl.

    I like Kelly. She has grown on me a lot recently. Either the bulk of the criminal defense bar is wrong about her, or I’m a lousy judge of character, or she’s an out-and-out sociopath who has me fooled. Being a criminal defense lawyer and therefore preferring to think the best of people, I’d rather choose what’s behind curtain A. Besides, most of my closest friends are arrogant, as am I (but I’m not putting people in prison . . . intentionally). So I don’t hold arrogance against a person, but I think justice (or some approximation thereof) is better served by prosecutors (and defense lawyers and judges) with a large measure of humility.

    I think Kelly would make a hell of a criminal defense lawyer if she could wrap her mind around it. What has gotten her in trouble is doing things that great CDLs do every day in court; the problem is that prosecutors aren’t necessarily allowed to do the things that great CDLs do every day in court. You guys are bound by CCP 2.01; we aren’t.

    Kelly was indisputably a leader in that office. Either Kelly saw what was wrong and tried to fix it (in which case there’ll be documentation, which we haven’t yet seen) or she didn’t and didn’t (in which case she’s complicit).

    I hope the candidates have the cojones to respond to my query. I’d bet that Jim and Kelly pick each other. They both know that it’s going to take a trial lawyer to manage that office; Jim made a big deal of that in the Q&A portion of the debate. Neither of the other candidates fills the bill.

    I don’t know what to ask Jim about his interactions with Pat. Can you give me a hint?

  5. AHCL – A late comment (Mark got there first), but my opinion of my opinions is really quite high.

    Do you really have to ask whether Mark refers to the “Rosenthal/Siegler” office because Kelly is a candidate? Kelly came to prominence during Chuck’s years at the helm, and she is putting herself before the public – at once decrying the state of things in an office where she was a manager and asking for a promotion because she’s a better manager than her opponents.

    Succinctly, when she stood up and filed, she became both a candidate and a target. Sometimes life sucks. Everybody needs to get over it.

    If you take the disgrace of Rosenthal out of the equation, Kelly’s qualifications are irrelevant. Rosenthal is the candidate and, one might imagine from the competition, elected to another term. If you remove both the disgrace and the incumbency, how Kelly measures up against those who might have considered running (under less harried circumstances) is anyone’s guess.

  6. Leviathan, it was a rhetorical question. I’m just calling attention to it.

    Mark, the question you pose is more complex.

    You know/knew me during my time at the Office (whether that be in the past or present). It wouldn’t shock me at all if you found me to be “cocky”, and it wouldn’t surprise me if you thought I was arrogant. I’ve always looked at trial lawyers as being the legal equivalent of fighter pilots. It’s part of an edge that you need to be effective in your job, wouldn’t you agree?

    Now, does that mean that I was/am part of the problem? I certainly never called out Chuck. I never demanded Mike Trent or Rob Freyer’s resignation (nor would I). I kind of assumed that we were all grown ups and not school children, and could handle our own problems.

    Kelly went from a designated hitter, ace trial lawyer in Special Crimes to Division Chief of Misdemeanor (where, I think she had actually already left when the Canadian e-mail came out. I’m not positive about that), and then back to Special Crimes as a Bureau Chief. In Special Crimes, she didn’t supervise the baby prosecutors anymore. She led the elite bureau of independent prosecutors who try the toughest and the coldest of cases. Yes, she was a supervisor, but it wasn’t in the chain of command of Mike Trent. And it wasn’t in the chain of command of the “offended prosecutors”.

    So, in the sense of chain of command, I was just as responsible for doing something as she was. Does that mean that I should have been fired too? Does that mean I’m a racist? Does that mean I was part of the “culture of racism” too?

    Does that mean I’m a bad person?

    Because quite frankly, I was too damn busy dealing with my own cases to go demanding answers to questions of racism.

    Did I get joke e-mails that were tasteless and offensive from people? Yep. I wasn’t stupid enough to forward them out to people, but I read them and I deleted them.

    Did I go track down the person who sent them to me (whether they came from within or from outside the office)? Nope. As mentioned above, I had too much crap of my own to do.

    Does THAT make me a racist? A sexist? A bad person?

    Or does/did my overall handling of the job outweigh my failure to “do something”?

    Was I fair to defendants when it came down to making sentencing recommendations? Was I courteous and respectful to the defense bar? Did I comport myself ethically on a daily basis? Did I seek justice within the bounds of the rules? Did I follow the law and the rules?
    Did I exercise some compassion?

    Was I/am I a good ADA? Or am I part of that evil culture of racism that the media seems to think justify cleaning out the whole place?

  7. AHCL,

    No. Maybe. No. No. No. No. Yes. I think so. Generally. I think so. It seemed so. I believe so. I feel you did. You are. And you may have been.

    I’m not talking about a culture of racism. Being white, I don’t think I have the insight that Vivian, Alvin, Cheryl and Tyrone might have. They have more experience of how both black lawyers and black defendants are treated by the ADAs.

    I am, rather, talking about a culture of arrogance. There’s a difference between arrogant fighter jock / samurai / hired gun/ trauma surgeon / pick your own metaphor trial lawyers who are kept under ethical rein and are guided by ethics, and such lawyers who are not kept under ethical rein and are guided by their own (ignorant) arrogance. The best of you have some humility; most of you develop some by the time you become felony chiefs, but some don’t.

    You seem to have omitted Kelly’s time in charge of the Professional Development Bureau from your precis of her resume.

    And you’re not running for office. The list of ADAs who would find themselves involuntarily unemployed if I were DA is short, but the list of ADAs who should be running the office is nonexistent. I don’t think you should have lost your job, but I don’t think you should have been DA either. I think Kelly Siegler should probably keep her job, but I don’t think she should be DA.

  8. Damn Mark, do you know what a pain in the ass it is to scroll up and down to correspond your answers to my questions?

    I didn’t intentionally omit Kelly being head of the Professional Development Bureau. I just couldn’t remember when she started doing that from when she was Misdemeanor Division chief (geographically, the offices are right next to each other in the building, and the bulk of Prof. Dev. is the Misdemeanor Division). I just kind of got the lines blurred.
    Sorry about that.

    And, as per our earlier (off blog) bet, who are you going to support if it ends up being a race between Siegler and Bradford in November?

  9. Yes.

    I’m going to wait till after the Bradford-Siegler debate to make that decision. If it’s between the two of them, I’ll probably join Doug perry in voting for Obama.

  10. “I like Kelly. She has grown on me a lot recently. Either the bulk of the criminal defense bar is wrong about her, or I’m a lousy judge of character, or she’s an out-and-out sociopath who has me fooled.”

    She has you snowed, Brother.

  11. Ditto what Observer said. Under no circumstance does Siegler ever get my vote. This: “our job is to decide who is guilty and then do everything possible to convict them” alone makes her the most dangerous candidate to the citizens of Harris County.

    I will frankly state that, regardless of who the best qualified candidate is, turning political control of the office over is in the best long term interests of the Harris County public.

    (For the record, Siegler is not the best qualified, far from it. A person who does not understand the job description cannot be qualified for the job. She ranks at the bottom alongside Perry in this regard.)

  12. Mark,

    As much as I agree with you about Siegler’s debate performance, I keep coming back to this: who of those four actually understands the job, and is competent to make needed changes? Kelly Siegler is the only candidate who makes any sense to me.

    My cohorts and I are not exactly on the DA’s office bandwagon, and previous posts we’ve written demonstrate our high scepticism. There are other people we wanted to see running. However, after watching two debates, we’d be lying if we said anyone currently running besides Kelly Siegler can do the job.

    BTW, Leitner would be my second choice, which is easy because Lykos and Perry are so lost from reality.

    Thanks for your thoughtful analysis.

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