Harris County’s First Public Defender

I like the idea of a public defender’s office, but the idea of Commissioners’ Court, Harris County’s executive board, controlling, through the power of the purse, the defense function is little more appealing than the current ad hoc system of appointment of indigent counsel by elected judges. One saving grace of a PD would be that a single lawyer could set policy for a large group of criminal defense lawyers, and could explain that policy and enforce it with Commissioner’s Court.

A good Public Defender will be willing to stand up to Commissioners’ Court and put the interests of the indigents accused above the political and fiscal cavils of the county executive in a way that 500 diverse court-appointed lawyers, each concerned for the state of his own pocketbook, could not and, even if they could, would not.

A bad Public Defender, however, will be a puppet of the Commissioners’ Court, subordinating the rights of the accused to political popularity or the almighty budget. The specter was raised, while we were waiting to hear who the PD would be, of some ex-judge who took the usual career path of the Harris County criminal judiciary from college to law school to the DA’s Office to the bench, with no criminal-defense credentials, getting the job. That would have been bad.

Word is that this morning Harris County Commissioner’s Court will select Alex Bunin, Federal Public Defender for the Northern District of New York, as Harris County’s first PD. I don’t know Bunin, but he gets high reviews from people in New York and from folks who knew him here in Houston, where he went to South Texas College of Law and clerked for Haynes (as in Richard “Racehorse” Haynes) & Fullenweider. That, I think, is good.

Bunin is board-certified in criminal defense in Texas. He started the FPD’s Office in NYND, as well as the ones in DVT and in SDAL.

I am hopeful.

2 responses to “Harris County’s First Public Defender”

  1. The original application submitted to the state’s Task Force on Indigent Defense was lacking any safeguards to prevent control by the all-powerful Harris County Commissioner’s Court. It was rejected on its face and sent back for further revisions. The new revised application created an independent oversight board to insulate the public defender from meddling by Commissioners Court and included a check against excessive case loads. While certainly a step forward, an underfunded PD office is the likely outcome. The more things change, the more they stay the same.

    Especially true in Harris county.

    I am doubtful.

  2. The devil is always in the details. I like your description about public defenders that “some” are “your heroes.” (at least I think that’s how you put it) In my experience, with 8 years as a PD, it tended to attract the best and the worst. In other words, a lot of the people there were excellent lawyers who fought hard for their clients. OTOH, there was another group of people there who enjoyed getting off work at 4:30, taking a 1.5 hour lunch and that your clients couldn’t fire you, which opened up your social calendar. What I witnessed was that due to bad management- which didn’t reward the first group or punish the the second- the incentives weren’t present and people in the first group started migrating toward the second. And who could really blame them? Why continue to work so hard when you weren’t financially compensated for it and when you were surrounded by people who provided the Constitutional minimum while having a great time. I am hopeful that your new PD will strike the right balance. However, bureaucracy and justice are like oil and vinegar; if they aren’t constantly agitated they naturally separate. Making sure the new PD’s office does not fall into this category, and that the former group doesn’t drift into the latter, will be your new PD’s principal task.

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