Tuesday, May 8, 2012

Juvenile judge critical of public defender

Well here's a surprise - a judge who doesn't care for the Harris County Public Defender's Office. Could it be that Judge John Phillips (presiding judge over the 314th Judicial District Juvenile Court) doesn't like not being the one pulling all the strings in his courtroom?

His argument is that it costs more money to use the PD's office to represent an indigent juvenile that it does to use a court-appointed attorney. That statement may or may not be true. Alex Bunin, the head of the PD's office, claims the numbers Mr. Phillips is using were based on a feasibility study and that the actual numbers are comparable.

Maybe the real issue is that with a fully funded PD's office there is a real check on the power of the bench and the DA's office in juvenile court. No longer can the DA and the court gang up on a defendant and force him to enter a plea.

Of course Judge Phillips can no longer favor his friends and supporters with court appointments and that seems to have the surprising effect of reducing the number of quick pleas in his court. Mr. Bunin has assembled, quite possibly, the best criminal defense firm in Texas over the past year and they have the time and energy to fight against injustice. And, for at least the next three years, the funds.

I have never believed that the Harris County PD's Office was set up by county commissioners to provide a powerful advocate for indigent defendants. I believe the office was set up because enough questions had been raised about both the level of competence and cost of the appointed system used in most Harris County courts. The PD's office was seen as a more economical way of obtaining mass pleas while providing cover for the county under the Fair Defense Act.

With the staggering number of reversals on appeal and trial wins by the PD's office, it will be interesting to see what happens when the county is left footing the bill for the office. How enthusiastic with county commissioners be to write a check to pay for a group of attorneys who will actually put up a fight? Is the purpose of the PD's office to provide an effective defense for the indigent - or to plead more cases on the cheap?

We'll know the answer when the grant money runs out.

1 comment:

Alex Bunin said...

Thanks for the accurate reporting. Congratulations on your election to the HCCLA Board.