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Indigent defense work group gets new chance to find common ground

Thursday, March 14, 2019 by Ryan Thornton

Yielding to the expertise of Amanda Woog, chair of Travis County’s indigent legal services work group, the Commissioners Court swiftly appointed two private defense attorneys to the group during its voting session Tuesday afternoon.

Local attorneys Paul Quinzi and Michael Watson will be filling the empty spots left on the panel last month when both members representing the Austin Criminal Defense Lawyers Association resigned, citing disrespect from some of the board’s other members.

When the idea of the work group was initially suggested by the Texas Indigent Defense Commission last year, the county invited community activists, formerly incarcerated individuals, academics, private and public defenders and county judges to mix and mingle while creating an actionable budgetary and policy plan for a county public defender’s office.

The county judiciary flatly declined the offer, but the county managed to attract interested parties from each of the other categories. Both the Capital Area Private Defender Service and ACDLA accepted the opportunity to help shape the process and nominated representatives to serve on the board.

Both of ACDLA’s appointed members, however, left the group after the first several weeks of unproductive meetings. Defense lawyers Krista Chacona and Steve Brand voiced their specific objections to the group’s dysfunction with the common complaint that the board as a whole was less interested in improving assigned counsel than working out the details to create a public defender office.

After several failed attempts to bring ACDLA back to the table, Woog urged the court last week to appoint two defense lawyers to fill the empty seats to rebalance the group after losing the bulk of its private defense representation. County Judge Sarah Eckhardt said voting on a spontaneous action item wasn’t possible, but that the court could place it on this week’s agenda.

Woog submitted her recommendations last week and the court unanimously approved them on Tuesday. Neither Watson nor Quinzi will represent an organization, despite Quinzi’s previous role as a board member of ACDLA and the county’s initial presumption that ACDLA would have a formal role on the work group.

The court wasn’t ready, however, to move forward with Woog’s recommendation to appoint two alternate members. Alternates have been helpful as substitute members but also as members of subcommittees, Woog said. Eckhardt said she needs to study the alternates’ resumes this week before taking a vote.

The group’s work was also revived last week by the TIDC board’s unanimous vote to waive this year’s requirement to submit a letter of intent to apply for a grant. That letter should have been submitted, featuring a signature from one of the county’s criminal court judges, by Monday, March 11, in order for the county to be eligible to apply for the grant funds in May.

However, no members of the judiciary were ready to sign the letter, pressing the work group to develop a coherent plan before attempting to apply for state funds. The judiciary showed continued interest in the work by sending the TIDC board a letter in full support of a financially sustainable public defender system prior to the board’s meeting Thursday, March 7. Regarding the financial details, the letter stated deference to the judgment of the Commissioners Court, which has the power to “deliver sufficient funding to protect the interests of the accused.”

Eckhardt said the court will receive regular updates as work continues, but that things are looking a little brighter now.

“There seems to be some sunlight coming through the clouds,” she said.

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