Tuesday, July 01, 2008

Dallas Public Defender purge raises legal and policy concerns

Several readers emailed recently to say the axe continues to fall around the Dallas Public Defender's office in the wake of top PD Brad Lollar's forced resignation. I don't know the total body county and won't name names out of courtesy to those who lost their jobs, but the purge has now gone well beyond Brad Lollar.

One reader rightly raises the question of whether County Commissioner John Wiley Price may have violated state law prohibiting undue influence by commissioners courts in employee hiring, citing:
Texas Local Government Code § 151.004.


The commissioners court or a member of the court may not attempt to influence the appointment of any person to an employee position authorized by the court under this subchapter.

Acts 1987, 70th Leg., ch. 149, § 1, eff. Sept. 1, 1987.
Similarly, rumors are flying into my email box about open records requests by the media seeking to determine whether Commissioner John Wiley Price violated Dallas county rules by personally vetting personnel files of Public Defender attorneys. At issue is a county ordinance stating:
Sec. 86-673. Outside request to access files.
Any request for access to an employee's file not made by the employee requires the following:
(1) Submission of a written request; and
(2) Review of the written request by the civil section of the district attorney's office prior to release. The written request must be immediately forwarded to the civil section of the district attorney's office for review due to strict time constraints for objecting to such requests for information.
(Ord. No. 2000-173, § 17.02, 1-25-2000)
If Price did not seek such permission from the DA's office, he may have violated the law.

The stated reason for these dismissals is a county budget crisis, but providing counsel for indigent defendants is a constitutional requirement for counties, and if there aren't enough PDs then more expensive private counsel must be appointed to do the job. Indeed, Dallas' public defender office keeps Dallas' indigent defense costs much lower than its neighbors.

I still can't help reaching the same, nebulous conclusion I came to when Brad Lollar was first fired: "This seems like an instance where there's a backstory that explains most of what's going on that we just don't know right now. Maybe Price is just on a crusade against lazy bureaucrats, or perhaps there's a less obvious agenda at play that I can't identify at the moment." We still don't know that backstory, but the budgetary reasons given for the Dallas PD purge simply don't hold water.

Mark Bennett, the blogger at Defending People and the President of the Harris County Criminal Lawyers Assocation, told the Houston Chronicle Price's interference must be viewed as a "cautionary tale" if Harris creates a public defender. The incident justifiably "
reinforced his skepticism of any indigent defense system run at the whim of county commissioners."

Though I'm a supporter of public defender systems, given what's happening in Dallas it's hard to argue with Bennett's cynical conclusion. That's the reason above all else why Price's actions deserve wide disapprobation.


Anonymous said...

Scott- There are 2 separate issues here with respect to records. One is the vetting of personnel files by JWP. The other issue involving the DMN public information request, as I understand it, has to do with weekly disposition reports assistant PDs have to prepare for submission by the administration of the office to Commissioner Price.

I think the casualty count is now up to 5 counting Mr. Lollar.

Anonymous said...

Actually, a lot of this can be traced back to two former Dallas County PD's, who, when they didn't get their way with Lollar, stomped over his head to John Wiley Price's office to stick the knives in the backs of all who had ever crossed them or told them no. Perhaps the Da's office and Denton County PD's office should watch their backs now that these two have moved on. And, logic follows that if Price had PD personnel files, then Lynn Richardson has to be the one who gave them to him. Who else had access to them?

Anonymous said...

make that the Denton County DA's office -- see previous post.

Anonymous said...

Who else besides Lollar has gotten the ax? The DMN hasn't told us, so it's up to Grits to name names.

Anonymous said...

Which former PD's did not get their way with Brad. I'm pretty good friends with several people in the office and none of us could figure what this person was talking about.

Actually, most of it can be traced back to the fact that Brad did not appoint to positions of power people JWP wanted him to. I'm positive there is more to it than that, but I find it coincidental.

Anonymous said...

Last count was one director, 1 felony supervisor, the juvenile division supervisor, 1 staff attorney and 1 investigator. Anyone got anything to add?

Anonymous said...

Here's an irony- I hear that right after Brad "left", Lynn had a meeting with her supervisors and that one of the topics was the importance of following the hierarchy of disciplinary action...you know, counseling the employee, written warning, etc...wonder how many of those that have been terminated have formal disciplinary actions in their files. Or were they all on "double secret probation?"

Anonymous said...

The feeling around the office is that the purge may have abated, for now. However, the new regime is one who feels the need to rule through fear and intimidation. Those who survived the Drescher years know how destructive this type of management style is. For those who were not there, hold on to your seats fellas, it's going to be a bumpy ride.

Anonymous said...

Turn on the "sprinklers" and add a pillow. Might help with the bumpy ride. I suppose one could always run for judge if it gets too bumpy. As long as you are able to manage your caseload with integrity and minus neglect, that is.

Anonymous said...

Here's Wiley Price quote from the Houston Chronical. I don't think that it's made the rounds in Dallas.

Longtime Commissioner John Wiley Price says that it seemed the Dallas public defender's office had turned into a "wayward home for some reject lawyers."


Anonymous said...

Notice his turnaround about the possibility of disbanding the office?

"Getting rid of the office is not an option," he said. "That office is cost-effective. And it can be the greatest thing since sliced bread."

Now that he's made his point that he's the de facto head of the Public Defenders Office, he must have decided to abandon his previous rhetoric.