As a lawyer, I read the story about Commissioners Court funding a study whether a public defender's office in Harris County is needed and feasible with great interest. (Please see "Public defenders office to get close look," Page B3, Wednesday.) I have accepted very few court appointments to represent indigent criminal defendants over the years; the system simply doesn't work. Each judge has his own rules, and with 37 full-time criminal judges, there are 37 different sets of rules. There is no uniformity, and there have always been stories about questionable appointment arrangements.
A number of attorneys make their entire living accepting appointments. I know of a lot of very good lawyers who take appointments regularly and do a good job, and a lot are quite capable but are just burned out and won't represent their client with the zeal required by the Cannons of Ethics because an appointed lawyer is lucky to get 20 percent of the going rate. The perception of court-appointed lawyers is so bad, the inmates in the Harris County jail would rather have virtually any free-world lawyer, a perception that is frequently not true but widely accepted regardless.
I stopped seeking appointments years ago after I was asked, and accepted, a county court coordinator's invitation to be their attorney of the week. At the time it paid $200 a day as a flat rate without regard to whether there were no clients or five clients. The coordinator, a good friend, told me that if I could not talk the inmate into pleading guilty, I would have to withdraw, and the judge would appoint one of her law school friends to "try" the case. He told me in no uncertain terms that if I set a case for trial, it would be my last appointment.
To my knowledge, no indigent inmate in that court ever received a jury trial. Fortunately, that particular judge was defeated in the next election cycle.
If a public defender system is established, a lot of lawyers who make their living doing nothing but appointments will either have to retire, work for the elected/appointed public defender or go back into the trenches like most criminal defense lawyers. If the public defender is on par with the experienced lawyers in the district attorney's office, then the cases will move through the system quicker, cheaper and with the Texas constitutional guarantee of a fair and speedy trial.
Harris County is way overdue for an overhauling of the way poor people are treated when accused of a crime.
PETER G. HECKLER, Houston