On Tuesday, the Travis County commissioners voted to accept more than $717,500 in state grant funding in order to establish a private defender’s office — a nonprofit organization that would provide pro bono legal defense to indigent defendants. Additionally, the office would have the task of determining whether or not certain attorneys are competent in order to ensure that defendants receive the best representation possible. Currently, Travis County has a public defender’s office for mental health and juvenile cases. But a private defender’s office for adult criminal cases would correct many of the issues in the current indigent defense system; many of these problems stem from judicial power to decide which attorneys are adequate to represent poor defendants.
The American Bar Association, in its “Ten Principles for Public Defense Delivery System,” states that a successful indigent defense system is completely independent from the judiciary. Despite this recommendation, Travis County’s list of appointed attorneys has been managed almost exclusively by judges. After the Texas Fair Defense Act was implemented in 2001, Travis County judges did have to submit to more administrative barriers that prevented cronyism and conflicts of interest. For example, a judge could no longer simply give out cases exclusively to lawyers who donated to their campaigns. Despite weakened power of the judiciary, judges cannot adequately assess an attorney’s performance based on what they see in the courtroom.
Andrea Marsh, founder of the Texas Fair Defense Project, told us, “Judges only see the lawyer in court, and a lot of work that lawyers do happens outside of the courtroom.” A private defender’s office led by several committees of practicing and retired judges and attorneys would use a managed assigned counsel (MAC) program to not only screen and supervise attorneys, but the program also includes mentorship and training so that lawyers are constantly improving. The Travis County commissioners’ decision shows a step in the right direction toward a more efficient court system as well as a respect for the Sixth Amendment right to legal counsel.
Davis is an associate editor.