An elected prosecutor used to have one of the most respected jobs at any level of Texas government.
Image via the Texas Tribune
District attorneys were often big personalities — the courtroom muscle of the criminal justice system, the people showing up on TV to play out the real-life version of “truth, justice and the American way.”
Candidates for Texas attorney general — an office with almost no duties in criminal law — have tried to capture the crime-busting aura of prosecutors for years. It was strong stuff in a political arena.
Running a political campaign against a sitting prosecutor in Texas was a job for egotistic dunces and legal-minded Quixotes. Even weak DA’s were invincible.He mentioned only in passing Dallas DA Craig Watkins' bizarre decision making this year that led a Democratic judge to declare him in contempt of court. And he could have added the strange episode where DA Association executive director Rob Kepple and newly elected Harris County DA Mike Anderson, who was elected on a revanchist platform, made bizarre Us. vs. Them comments at a prosecutor training that drew fire from the conservative blogosphere and various MSM outlets. It's been quite remarkable to watch the terms of debate shift among capitol opinion leaders. It'd be interesting to see some fresh, state-level polling on public attitudes on the topic.
But a strange thing is happening in the impervious ranks of high-profile Texas prosecutors. That cachet is taking a beating.
One prosecutor is in jail. A former district attorney is facing charges related to sending an innocent man to jail. One county spent nearly $400,000 settling a sexual harassment charge against its DA. Another prosecutor is fighting contempt of court charges after refusing to testify in a prosecutorial misconduct inquiry.
Grits dates the beginning of Texas DAs' recent slump to Harris County DA Chuck Rosenthal's ignominious, public meltdown. When Rosenthal imploded, his heir apparent lost a primary runoff and much of the old-guard staff left the agency. Meanwhile, Craig Watkins took out Dallas DA Bill Hill's own heir apparent, then launched his DNA/innocence review, similarly dissipating the old guard among senior prosecutors. From that time, prosecutors' relative political clout changed. All of a sudden, they no longer spoke with one voice. Not only were two hard-line prosecutorial political bases (Dallas and Houston) replaced with ostensible reformers, but those rookie reformers were focused on their own jurisdictions, not projecting political power at the capitol the way their predecessors had done.
That left John Bradley in Williamson County as the tuff-on-crime standard bearer for Texas DAs. He was based close to Austin, had legislative experience (including at one point two decades ago as a staffer to Senate Criminal Justice Chairman John Whtimire) and for several sessions he had the Governor's ear, getting Perry to veto Jerry Madden and Whitmire's probation reforms in 2005 and throwing his weight around on the Texas Forensic Science Commission. But history, the Texas Senate and ultimately his own local Republican primary voters did not deal kindly with JB.
Today, who is there to replace him among elected DAs in that tuffer-than-thou vein? Susan Reed in Bexar County, to some extent, though perhaps for partisan reasons her delegation doesn't reliably carry her water. Abel Reyna from Waco is outspoken and based just 90 miles away but his office is not engaged at the capitol. Neither is the Smith County DA - they have a hard-line reputation but they're not represented at the capitol day-to-day the way the larger counties often assign a full-time prosecutor to monitor legislation in Austin. El Paso's DA qualifies as a modest reformer. Prosecutors from the Valley occasionally show up, though mostly for local issues. And as for Harris County, my own dealings with new DA Mike Anderson's statehouse lobby team have been civil and productive - a much more pleasant and reasonable experience than either under Lykos or Rosenthal.
The result has been a remarkable change in tone from prosecutors' own representatives, exemplified by their new stance on discovery. There are still some outliers who'd like to kill discovery reform, I'm reliably told, but the prosecutors' association is doing its best job at cat herding to try to keep them in line. Enjoy it now, there's no telling how long this kinder, gentler face will predominate.
Either way, Ramsey is right that that Texas prosecutors recently faced remarkable political and legal setbacks and no longer enjoy an air of invincibility. However, I don't think they've agreed to a one-sided discovery bill just because they're weak. Many of them already have open file policies and so don't see the harm. I think it's also because they want to position themselves again as the guys in the white hats, a perception that just a few years ago at the capitol all of them took for granted. Folks like Lehmberg, Anderson, and Bradley aren't used to being the bad guys and their peers don't like being tarnished by their actions. They're still a powerful force at the capitol, though, and it'd be a mistake to suppose these temporary setbacks will diminish Texas prosecutors' clout any time soon, even if they need to find new messengers.
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