: The Blawgraphy
Life of a Law Student, University of Houston Law Center

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Speculation on future U.S. Attorney in Southern District of Texas

Texas Lawyer has an interesting article on the political angling of those vying for the U.S. Attorney in Houston. There are 93 such federal prosecutors throughout the United States and it remains one of the most prestigious and sought-after jobs in the law despite recent controversy over the politically-motivated dismissal of several U.S. Attorneys in New Mexico, Arizona, California, and elsewhere. U.S. Attorneys serve at the pleasure of the President, so Obama’s election essentially means an new slate in the office.

In the Southern District of Texas, U.S. Attorney Don DeGabrielle resigned his post on Nov. 8 to become a partner in Fulbright and Jaworski in Houston. Tim Johnson, DeGabrielle’s former first assistant, is now acting U.S. attorney for the district. Johnson says he is not interested in pursuing the appointment.

One lawyer mentioned as a contender to take over for Johnson is Larry Veselka, a partner in Houston’s Smyser Kaplan and Veselka who practices criminal defense. Veselka sought the U.S. attorney position in 1993 after Clinton was elected president, but the job went to Gaynelle Griffin Jones.

“I think it would be fun,” Veselka says of being U.S. attorney. “They could tell me ‘no’ if they want to, but I’m going to ask.”

Veselka says he plans to call the office of U.S. Rep. Solomon Ortiz, D-Corpus Christi — the most senior member of the Texas Democratic congressional delegation — to express his interest in the position as well as call U.S. Rep. Chet Edwards, D-Waco, who Obama considered as a possible running mate before selecting U.S. Sen. Joe Biden, D-Del. Many lawyers believe Edwards may be influential in helping the Obama administration select nominees. Edwards did not return a telephone call seeking comment.

Philip Hilder of Houston’s Philip Hilder and Associates sought the U.S. attorney position unsuccessfully during the Clinton administration. Hilder is a former U.S. Department of Justice attorney who was in charge of the Houston field office and a former assistant U.S. attorney in the Southern District. He did not return a telephone call seeking comment on whether he is currently interested in the U.S. attorney post. Neither did Susan Strawn, a former DOJ attorney who now is an adjunct professor at the University of Houston Law Center. Strawn ran as a Democrat for the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals this year but was defeated in the Nov. 4 general election.

“It’s common when you make a strong showing in a statewide election, you get an appointment,” says Susan Hays, a Dallas solo who formerly was chairwoman of the Dallas County Democratic Party. “And she’s got a long career in the Department of Justice.” Harris County Democratic Party chairman Gerry Birnberg could not be reached for comment.

It’s interesting to note that no similar political maneuvering is taking place on the other side of counsel’s table. Federal Public Defenders are officers of the court, appointed by the respective Circuit Court of Appeal for a four year term. This both precludes the conflict of interest of having opposing sides appointed by the executive branch and shields the position from untoward political pressure.

Considering Harris County’s Public Defender System and Youth

Rather than re-post this in full, I’ll just point out my recent post Anticipating Effect of Public Defender System on Representation of Indigent Youth in Harris County on the Children and the Law Blog, part of my work for the Center for Children, Law & Policy. This follows up on my previous post Call for Harris County Public Defender’s Office.

Harris County currently uses a system of appointments by juvenile judges, a system called into question by another Houston Chronicle article – A select few get the cases, and the cash. The article reveals a system, which combined with the fact that judges in Texas are elected, requiring them to campaign and thus to raise campaign funds through donations, that can hardly hope to avoid the appearance of impropriety. The article claims that two of the county’s three juvenile judges “received more than 90 percent of their campaign contributions from the attorneys they appoint.”

The judges, for their part, seem open to a public defender system themselves -

For his part, [Judge] Shelton says he gets no joy from his appointment powers and plans to study public defender offices in other cities. All three judges deny any correlation between contributions and appointments.

“I would be happier if there was a public defender system,” Shelton said.

Call for Harris County Public Defender’s Office

There seems to be a growing movement in Harris County to creating a local public defender’s office. As many Houstonians would be surprised to discover, despite, well… voting for the people they do, Harris County has no public defender office. While Houston has a federal public defender office, there is no state or county counterpart such as exists in the well known public defender’s office in Cook County Illinois (Chicago) (See Kevin Davis’ Defending the Damned) or Brooklyn Defender Services popularized by David Feige’s Indefensible. Despite an illustrious tradition of great criminal defense attorneys – perhaps even because of it, I suppose – Houston has seen fit to rely on court appointments to satisfy its constitutional obligation to provide legal representation to the poor.

I first heard this mentioned at an HCCLA meeting, by criminal defense attorneys who in economic terms stand something to lose by championing such a proposal, but nevertheless see the overarching benefits of a cohesive organization to provide an adequate defense to those who need it most.

As Lisa Falkenburg noted in her opinion piece An idea whose time has come? -

Patrick McCann, president of the Harris County Criminal Lawyers Association, the county’s largest defense bar, recently took a poll and the group’s attorneys came out 2-to-1 in support of some kind of public defender office.

I don’t have the benefit of long experience to know whether this is just hope springing eternal or this overdue notion actually has a shot at becoming reality; those I’ve spoken to about it who do have that long experience are… well, they’re not counting their chickens.

But there is some support, perhaps more than we think. State Senator Rodney Ellis and Innocence Project director Barry Scheck marshall the usual arguments in support-

From our crime lab to the prosecutor’s office to indigent defense, Houston and Harris County have deservingly received national ridicule for practices leading to the conviction of the innocent. It’s time we took the necessary steps to repair our broken system. An independent public defender office is the best place to start.

Public defender programs are widely considered the most cost-effective way to deliver quality indigent defense services, which is why the federal government and every major urban area in the country — except Harris County — uses a public defender system.

Will we have ears to hear? That’s the question.

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