The Austin Chronicle

Public Defender Proposal Submitted to the State

By Michael King, May 13, 2019, 3:40pm, Newsdesk

Travis County Judge Sarah Eckhardt had reason to celebrate late last week. On Thursday, May 9, the criminal court judges issued their approval of the county’s amended grant application to the Texas Indigent Defense Commission, for the creation of a Public Defender's Office. Now, the county will wait for the TIDC …

The judges’ approval came in the form of a May 9 letter signed by Presiding Judge Brenda Kennedy, informing the Commissioners Court that the version of the grant proposal approved Tuesday by the Commissioners had been “approved by a majority of our judges.” Kennedy noted that the judges’ approval remains dependent upon assurances in the grant proposal that the existing indigent defense program – that is, provided through the Managed Assigned Counsel system, aka the Capital Area Private Defender Service – would also be “adequately funded,” in order to continue serving 70% of the misdemeanor and felony indigent defenses (with the PDO handling 30%).

The judges’ approval was the last piece of the proposal the Commissioners needed to forward the county's application, and Eckhardt was quick to issue a statement applauding “the first step in a much longer process to create [Travis County’s] very own Public Defender’s Office.” She thanked the commissioners and the “representative stakeholders, including advocates for and clients of subsidized legal defense, private and public defense attorneys, and judges.”

The approval is in part a testimony to Eckhardt’s earnest pragmatism. She welcomed the draft proposal prepared by the Court-appointed Indigent Legal Services Working Group and the amended version submitted by the judges – and then drafted her own hybrid, which accepted the judges' insistence upon additional funding for CAPDS but punted the disputed issue of an eventual oversight committee for the PDO. The judges proposed some judicial membership on paired committees, while the Working Group firmly opposed oversight by judges as representing a conflict of interest. Should the grant be approved, that argument will undoubtedly resume.

The next step is review of the county proposal by the TIDC, which anticipates making decisions in June for programs to begin in October. According to Travis County justice planning executive Roger Jefferies, the county’s proposal “will be competing with other jurisdictions for a finite pot of money. TIDC could come back and ask us to tweak and/or reduce our request.”

For the moment at least, those questions have been put on hold, along with the continuing tensions among the various criminal justice stakeholders. Eckhardt concluded hopefully, “By working together, we are reaching common ground and progressing the culture of Travis County. We thank everyone who shared their experience and input.”

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