“Criminal D.A.” Plan Simmers at County
Commissioners to consider legislative role on Nov. 13
The proposal-in-progress to merge the Travis County District Attorney and County Attorney offices into a "Criminal District Attorney" remains under consideration at Commissioners Court, with a planned Nov. 13 vote on adding it to the county's 2019 legislative agenda. Proponents – which strongly include the incumbents, D.A. Margaret Moore and C.A. David Escamilla – have presented to the court; staff has followed up with research requested by commissioners; and stakeholders – prosecutors, defense attorneys, advocacy groups – have weighed in on all sides. County Judge Sarah Eckhardt has expressed cautious support, but it's not clear if other commissioners are ready to sign on.
Moore argues there are both financial and policy reasons for the merger (a single office is common statewide, especially in larger counties), emphasizing that it could address a long-held goal that has ever receded into the political future: providing 24-hour intake at the county jail, with prosecutors directly assigning or declining felony and misdemeanor charges. While that aspect would need additional personnel, Moore says the merger would create other efficiencies to reduce costs, such as not doubling up prosecutions for felony (currently D.A.) and misdemeanor (C.A.) offenses. "This change would be positive for justice, and positive financially," Moore told the Chronicle. "This is the direction we need to go, and this is the moment we need to see it happen."
But the plan requires action by the state Legislature. Presumably, if draft legislation emerges from the discussions, state Sen. Kirk Watson (D-Austin) would carry the resulting bill. Watson said, "This is something that I see benefit and value to, but I will wait to see what comes out of the elected county officials."
One concern of doubters has been that if the change is proposed to the Legislature, Gov. Greg Abbott might seize the occasion to appoint a "new officeholder" to the position – that is, a Republican – instead of it devolving to Moore. (Escamilla has indicated his intent to retire after his current term.) The D.A. says that possibility has been considered, and that any bill would follow a successful model previously used by Grayson County – enabling the election of a new criminal D.A. in November 2020 (when both Moore and Escamilla's terms are up), to assume office the following January. Watson declined to discuss his strategy for a bill that doesn't yet exist, but Eckhardt has suggested that in the event of gubernatorial overreach, the bill could simply be withdrawn.
Moore and Escamilla each have argued that, in Moore's words, "the pros outweigh any cons," and that the merger would represent a major step forward for the county justice system. It remains to be seen if at least three county commissioners share that optimism.