Commissioners Ponder D.A. / C.A. Merger

Court punts Lege agenda decision to Dec. 11 [UPDATE]

“It’s taken me a long time to be reminded,” Travis County Attorney David Escamilla told the Chronicle this week. “Almost to the end of my career, of something I learned at the beginning: Change is hard and people are afraid of change.”

Margaret Moore and David Escamilla (Photo by Jack Anderson)

Escamilla was discussing the months-long discussion still simmering at Commissioners Court over the proposed merger of his office with that of District Attorney Margaret Moore, creating a “Criminal District Attorney” office responsible for both misdemeanor and felony prosecutions (and including a civil division). Some 49 Texas counties – including all the larger ones – combine the responsibilities. Escamilla proposed the possibility to Moore after her 2016 election, anticipating clearing the way with his own retirement at the end of his current term (Jan. 2021). Commissioners are considering whether to add the proposed change to the county’s 2019 Legislative agenda – after weeks of public discussion and several postponements, the vote is now scheduled for next Tuesday, Dec. 11.

In early November, a majority of the five commissioners appeared ready to approve the idea (“C.A. + D.A. = C.D.A.?,” Nov. 9). More recently, observers are suggesting the outcome remains in doubt, after a Dec. 1 Statesman story reported wavering on the dais. That followed a Nov. 13 Court session in which several criminal defense attorneys testified against the idea. Gerry Morris, Randy Leavitt, Amber Vasquez and others expressed skepticism about the anticipated efficiencies – both judicial and administrative. They argued that the current arrangement is working well, and more specifically worried that under a merged office, misdemeanor prosecutions and diversion programs would suffer inadequate attention.

The prosecutors say those are misapprehensions, and that in fact accused defendants will receive better treatment under a merged office. Currently, arresting officers largely determine the initial charges filed against arrestees, and would be in theory be replaced by prosecutors assigned to review arrests at all times and determine precise charges. Escamilla says that annually, under the current system, some 4,000 defendants face as many as 8,000 cases that might not be accurately charged for days or weeks – and assigning two distinct prosecutors to the job would be both inefficient and expensive. Moore reiterates that current obstacle, adding, “One of us can’t simply abandon or delegate our constitutional obligations.”

Other defense attorneys have expressed support for the proposal. Chris Perri, a board member of the Austin Criminal Defense Lawyers Association, acknowledged that some ACDLA members are wary of putting “too much power” in the hands of the eventual CDA, and others want any financial savings (estimated by county staff at about $1.4 million annually) to go toward diversion, indigent defense, or similar programs. But Perri said the possibilities of the 24/7 prosecutorial intake at the jail, thereby streamlining felony/misdemeanor charges, should be a real advantage for his clients. “In some instances, I’ve been able to work out a felony charge fairly quickly,” Perri said, “and then wait months or even years to address the misdemeanor.”

Misgivings raised by various criminal justice advocacy groups have largely been answered – as they’ve told the court – and the prosecutors have convened a stakeholders group among various advocates to monitor and adjust the office going forward. “If it passes during the session, we’ll have at least a year-and-a-half to work on it before anything changes,” said Moore. “We’re confident we can answer all the concerns.”

Most of the arguments, pro and con, have been heard repeatedly by the commissioners, but the vote remains uncertain. Four votes would be required to confirm the proposal on the Lege agenda; a 3-2 majority would leave it as possible, but off the official list. Based on public comments, Judge Sarah Eckhardt remains a solid yes, Commissioner Margaret Gómez a likely no (she says she prefers the current County Attorney arrangement, especially for civil cases). Commissioners Jeff Travillion, Brigid Shea, and Gerald Daugherty remain variously “on the fence” (in Daugherty’s words). Shea and Daugherty have both previously expressed cautious support, Travillion less so.

UPDATE Dec. 10: In a conversation following the original post, Travillion said that while he's taking a "wait-and-see" attitude on the eventual vote, he remains unconvinced of the merger proposal. He said he believes the "24/7" jail intake could be accomplished under the current system, administratively, and he has not been persuaded that that there are sufficient reasons for the major change.

"At the end of the day, for me," Travillion said. "if we’re going to make efficiency recommendations – efficiency recommendations mean taking an existing process, streamline it and make it more effective or, streamline it and provide significant savings for the office. I’ve not seen anything that suggests significant cost savings or significant process adjustments, at this point." He added that the county attorney's office has major civil responsibilities (concerning real estate, purchasing, etc.), and "I do not want those to become secondary tasks" under a CDA.

Daugherty said this week he remains undecided, not yet convinced that the administrative efficiencies and financial savings will be sufficient for him to “take a big leap of faith. … I still don’t know where the hell I’m gonna be on it,” he continued, but added that he’ll be ready to vote on Tuesday. “In all my years on the court, I don’t think I’ve ever abstained – that’s not what we’re elected to do.”

Moore says she’s ready for an “up or down vote,” whatever the outcome. She said it’s unrealistic to argue that the two offices can make all the necessary changes without combined responsibilities, priorities, and resources. “But maybe we’re not ready yet, in this town," Moore concluded, "for big, bold changes.”

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Travis County Commissioners Court, Margaret Moore, David Escamilla

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