Tuesday, September 02, 2008

Why are attorneys leaving the Dallas Public Defender's office?

Five attorneys have resigned from the Dallas Public Defender's office in the past month thanks to oversized caseloads and pressure from the county commissioner's court to short-change clients legal representation via a new, weekly reporting system. Two of those lawyers - Mike Howard and David Woodruff - just opened their own practice, and their website includes a blog whose first post gives their reasons for leaving the PD office:

A while back the county commissioners’ court started making life difficult for the PDs for seemingly no reason. We had always been required to keep monthly stats on our docket (number of cases appointed, pending cases, cases disposed by trial, plea, revocation, et cetera) and that was okay. But then the commissioners wanted weekly stats. Why? Who knows. I mean all you have to do is divide our monthly stats by four and you have a pretty good idea what we did on a weekly basis. And because they wanted them in different formats, it meant keeping two sets of stats. And then they wanted us to use an absolutely worthless case management program. So with stats and the new program, every time I did anything, it took about three times as long as it should. When you add that on top of the legendary heavy caseload a PD juggles, it’s a recipe for disaster.

And that brings us to the caseload. Until a few months ago, there was no written rule about how many cases we had to carry. But supposedly some people weren’t carrying their weight. But instead of addressing those specific problems (if there were problem people not carrying their weight the commissioners would’ve known just who they were based on the various stats they kept), they upped the number of cases we all had to take. First it was 30 new cases a month for felony attorneys. Then 35. Then 40. 40! 40 felonies a month. And many of us handled little or no “easy” cases like probation violations. Try handling 40 1st, 2nd, and 3rd degree felonies a month. All my friends outside the PDs office recognized it for what it was: madness.

So all this built up until David and I couldn’t take it. We resigned because we knew we couldn’t give all our clients the representation they deserved with the way the office was headed. And we weren’t alone. In the past month or so five attorneys have resigned. One was even board certified in criminal law. I love the PDs office with all my heart. I respect the attorneys up there and hope they’re able to right the ship. It’s a tragedy that is absolutely pointless if you ask me.
It should be mentioned that attorneys must now take 40 NEW cases each month, but without a similar statistical emphasis on dispositions. So unless they become essentially a cog in the plea mill machine, this rule insists that PDs caseloads will balloon exponentially over time, quickly devolving into absurdity with PDs expected to zealously represent hundreds of clients with serious felony cases at any one time. The commissioners court has demanded these attorneys choose between their job and their ethics to the detriment of the taxpayers and the justice system.

Good luck to Howard, Woodruff, the others who've departed and everybody they left behind at the PDs office, who are clearly going through a rough stretch. The irony is, these lawyers will continue to represent indigent defendants at the courthouse, I'm sure. The only difference will be that in both the short and long haul, their services will cost the county more.

MORE: Unfair Park, which profiled Howard a couple of years ago, comments on recent public defender defections.

See related Grits posts:

27 comments:

Anonymous said...

The Dallas County Commissioner's Court is clearly out of touch with reality.I think the Dallas judicial system has changed into a form of "Let's Make a Deal".The attorneys you can pay don't even want to go to trial.Hence,the plea bargain where everybody but the client wins.The client ends up taking a plea,although they may be innocent,because their attorney doesn't want to spend any time in court.It costs the defense attorney billable hours.The ADA's get one in the win column and all is well with the world of Dallas "justice". The PD does not have the same resources as the DA now.This is not justice the Founding Fathers had in mind.If the Innocense Project wants to really review the justice in Dallas County,they need to interview the defendents who took a plea.The only ways the wheels of "justice" in this county get greased is by money.If you have it, you can win.Without it,don't waste your money.Just take the deal.

Kacy said...

They don`t have to justify their decsion on leaving by giving an explanation. Good luck to them

Gritsforbreakfast said...

I agree, Kacy. But it's good to hear their reasoning to get a sense of what's going on in the office.

I know Mike from my stint at ACLU; he's a good guy and a good lawyer. He'll do fine, I'm sure, like the other defecting PDs. It's Dallas County's loss.

E. A. Srere said...

JWP can kiss my butt. He has no clue of what the attorneys in that office do or don't do. You cannot temper justice with cost effectiveness. After 11 years I, too, have handed in my resignation.

As to what Anon 7:31 said, you're preaching to the choir. Which is why I am thinking seriously about changing my profession. How sad.

But when you actually CARE about the clients, quotas just don't work.

The ironic part is: most of the people who are leaving are taking with them a mountain of legal expertise and experience, which ordinarily would have been passed down to future PDs.

Now I'm just wondering when anyone is going to stick up for the misdemeanor attorneys, who have to have ONE HUNDRED misdemeanor appointments a month. That's five NEW cases EVERY WORKING DAY. I cannot even imagine.

Anonymous said...

I agree with E.A., although I would have added more expletives in the first sentence. The case assignment quotas are ridiculous whether one's talking about the felony section or the misdemeanor section. I doubt anyone will stick up for the misdemeanor attorneys within the office. The point's been made that everyone in the office is expendable.

Anonymous said...

What a bunch of cry babies! Suck it up! If you're a PD you have no office rent, advertising, personnel or investigator costs. A PD can practice law without these worries. As far as the quality of the legal representation, I've seen crappy PD's and a few good ones. Some of these PD's couldn't work the dive thru at Mcdonalds. Maybe the quitters can sell pencils to the tourists downtown. Way to weed out these losers Mr. Wiley! Although Dallas county citizens might suffer at the local fast food drive thru windows!

Anonymous said...

anon 4:15,

you're an f'g idiot!! you have no clue about what you are speaking. the pd's who left, left because they have integrity and did not want to sacrifice the quality of their representation for the sake of his holiness, jwp. i applaud them and wish them well in their endeavors.

if you have issues with the quality of representation provided by any of the pd's, bring on the examples. for every story you may think you have regarding lack of ability, you will find thousands more about those pd's who go way above and beyond the call of duty. are you telling us that people like jennifer balido, janet cook, susan anderson, michelle moore, paul blocker, ronith hermann and the entire appellate section should be working at mcdonald's? if you feel that way, then you are beyond an idiot.

and, no, i am not a public defender, but i know quality attorneys when i see them. these people take enough crap from their clients, they should not have to take the same thing from jackasses like you.

Anonymous said...

anon 4:15,

you're an f'g idiot!! you have no clue about what you are speaking. the pd's who left, left because they have integrity and did not want to sacrifice the quality of their representation for the sake of his holiness, jwp. i applaud them and wish them well in their endeavors.

if you have issues with the quality of representation provided by any of the pd's, bring on the examples. for every story you may think you have regarding lack of ability, you will find thousands more about those pd's who go way above and beyond the call of duty. are you telling us that people like jennifer balido, janet cook, susan anderson, michelle moore, paul blocker, ronith hermann and the entire appellate section should be working at mcdonald's? if you feel that way, then you are beyond an idiot.

and, no, i am not a public defender, but i know quality attorneys when i see them. these people take enough crap from their clients, they should not have to take the same thing from jackasses like you.

susan a. said...

Anon 8:15,

Thanks for getting our back. I owe you a beer at Rusty next year.

Anonymous said...

There's an old saying: Never wrestle with a pig. You both get dirty and the pig loves it.

Gritsforbreakfast said...

I deleted the vitriolic (always anonymous) name calling to which 6:12 refers, as I've been going around doing on several strings this morning. We've had quite a troll bout these last few days!

Play nice, folks. If you want to spew anonymous, content-free insults, start your own blog, don't leave them here.

Anonymous said...

Anon 8:15,
Way to defend the PD's office. JWP wants accountability! How do we measure that with the PD's Office? Let's let them run free from any restrictions or oversight and I'm sure everything will work out! Obviously, Dallas Citizens want to see what they're paying for. Is that wrong?

vitriolic vixen said...

Darn, I was kind of in the mood for uninformed, vitriolic rhetoric. While it may sometimes make author feel supreme in the writing of such rhetoric, it more often renders the recipient supreme due to author's ignorance.

Anonymous said...

I like you anon 4:15PM. You’d probably make a good public defender.

Is the PD recently hired by the DA’s office a loser, or is he one of the few good ones? Wait a minute! Isn’t District Attorney Craig Watkins a former public defender? Now I confused myself. You’re not implying that Mr. Watkins sells pencils to the tourists, are you? Oh yea, that’s right, he sells title insurance.

Anonymous said...

On the issue of accountability, I don't believe anyone would seriously argue that government agencies shouldn't be held accountable, but the issue is how it's done.

JWP wants accountability for everyone but himself. I'd love to see him and the rest of that court submit to the same level of scrutiny they demand from the individual departments. Here's an idea, let's issue every county employee including commissioners a little swipe card so we can see when they show up at the office and how long they take for lunch. And while we're at it, let's hook up GPS transmitters to their cars so we can see where they are during the day. Or maybe voters would settle for weekly stat sheets so we can see how the commissioners spent their time.

Accountability? I hope the citizens of Dallas County remember as these five come up for reelection who was at the helm when the 34 million dollar shortfall occurred...and the additional 5 million dollar shortfall in tax revenue...oh, yeah, and the 900K jury verdict against the county because they, the commissioners, can't get that jail thing quite right.

And I've yet to hear what sacrifices the commissioners have made to help offset their budget woes.

The assignment quotas have nothing to do with accountability, but the desire for "savings (read "profit") maximization" by the Budget Dept. and the commissioners. It's the moral equivalent of factory bosses speeding up the conveyor belt on an assembly line. It might be one thing if these quotas brought with them additional support staff or other resources to help make these increasing caseloads easier to deal with, but I haven't heard of that happening... and that would cut into the bottom line.

San Antonio Lawyer said...

I enjoy reading your comments. Absolutely learn a lot from it. Keep it up!

Debbie Sanchez said...

E. A. is a good lawyer. I hope she doesn't change professions. Dallas County's loss.

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Anonymous said...

Well, this ought to boost the morale of Dallas County employees:

http://www.dallasnews.com/sharedcontent/dws/dn/latestnews/stories/090808dnmetcountyreserves.1b3fb95.html

The General Fund is going to have a 48 million dollar surplus for FY2009.

So why aren't y'all getting raises?

e. a. srere said...

Well, anonymous 6:49 AM, I'm guessing that perhaps that at least 3 level 3 attorneys will be bumped to fours, and 2 level 2 attorneys will be bumped to level 3, courtesy of the 5 resignations.

And since they lost 5 felony attorneys, does that mean that a level 5 felony supervisor will be bumped back down to a level 4? Doubtful.

48 million surplus. HA.

My former clients thank you.

Anonymous said...

E.A., it's too bad this nonsense drove you, as well as others, out of the office. I think all county employees got screwed this year...obviously some more than others...all for the sake of a triple A bond rating of dubious significance. Well, that and some political "We'll just see who's in charge" gamesmanship on the part of the commissioners. And now they've set up a "just be glad you still have a job" dynamic to distract those that are left from being too upset over the absence of raises this year. This year when energy costs have shot up and we're all glad to be paying 3.45 for a gallon of gas and not 3.95 or more.

I know I won't be voting for my current commissioner or the current county judge as they come up for reelection.

Dayton Attorney said...

Great article. It is amazing that the government could even consider short changing its citizens, especially when the result could be innocent people going to jail.

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Tax Attorney said...

I can't stand that people are okay and like when someone innocent could be in jail. That makes me sick.

Tax Attorney said...

I forgot to mention that people the attorneys need to stand up for the law in some cases more than allow bad things to happen.

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