Gideon Alert: Texas' Dallas County struggles with undue political & judicial interference

BY David Carroll on Wednesday, May 12, 2010 at 2:08 PM

An article in the Dallas Morning News  on May 12, 2010 discusses an impasse in the Dallas courts between the executive and judicial branches of government over how to make the courts more efficient.  At issue is the creation of a temporary court to be presided over by a visiting judge to handle a backlog of cases that are ready for trial.  The article describes case backlog so entrenched that criminal defense lawyers are using it to encourage clients to take pleas to time served in pre-trial detention rather than wait for trials at which they risk lengthy sentences in state penitentiaries. 

The article is highlighted because it underscores the undue political and judicial control that is at heart the underlying cause of so many issues with the right to counsel in Texas.  The judges are opposed to the proposed plan because they say that judges, and not the political branch, have authority over the court dockets and the cases within them – a power that extends to judicial attempts to control the right to counsel system.  Note the reference the chief judge makes to “my public defender.”  The political branch (in Dallas, the County Commissioners) accuses the judges of a “power grab” that is preventing a solution to jail-overcrowding and backed up criminal dockets.  Lost in all of this fighting over turf and control is any true effort by people of good will to ensure an effective criminal justice system.

As many NLADA reports make clear, there is no single cookie-cutter model that guarantees competent counsel.  Good and bad examples abound in all three delivery models (staff government employee public defender offices, court appointed private counsel systems, and contract defender systems).  What is important is that whatever system is in place adheres to the American Bar Association's Ten Principles of a Public Defense Delivery System.  Thus, while debate continues among policymakers and advocates in other parts of Texas for a pilot public defender program in Harris County (Houston), independence should be the preeminent concern. 

Perhaps the Dallas situation would not be at loggerheads if they had formed an “Adjudication Partnership” – sometimes called a “criminal justice collaborating committee.”  An adjudication partnership is a formal collaborative effort in which representatives from all justice system agencies (judges, law makers, administrators, prosecutors, defenders, law enforcement, and corrections)  join together to identify problems, develop goals and strategies for addressing the problems, and oversee the implementation plans to manage or solve problems.  Many jurisdictions have learned that there is value to leaving the adversarial process in the courtroom, and coming together to have a rational and reasoned discussion about best practices.  In the best jurisdictions, adjudication partnerships produce joint criminal justice fiscal impact statements, such that the legislature can make informed decisions on all criminal justice bills. 

For more information, the Bureau of Justice Assistance (BJA) produced a bulletin highlighting key elements of successful adjudication partnerships.  We are authorized to say that BJA anticipates a new grant on this subject in the near future.