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.