Bexar County Public Defender's Office Update: Promising developments

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If you've read last week's cover story on the state of affairs at the Bexar County Public Defender's Office, which has been knowingly operating in violation of state statutes and American Bar Association guidelines for several years, this news might cheer you up.

During a Public Defender training at the Texas Criminal Defense Lawyers Association today, which I attended out of curiosity and with the blessing of  Harris County Public Defender and session leader Alex Bunin, I spied Richard Dulany. Not only is Dulany, who went on the record with his frustrations with the County's management of the office, still a public defender, as of this Monday, he's the interim chief public defender, and the job offer came directly from the County Manager's office. As you may recall, one of the biggest issues with the Public Defender's Office here is that it went without a chief public defender for about three years.

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This couldn't have come at a better time for a few reasons, which I'll order from least- to most-cynical:

1) The County is currently preparing its budgets for the next fiscal year. Now, finally, someone from the Public Defender's Office itself will be able to lobby for funds to pay for things like WestLaw, the essential legal research tool, and recommend appropriate staff levels.

2) The Oversight Board, which will likely be the legally acceptable supervisor of the office (unlike the most recent organizations which had the Public Defender's Office under other departments headed by non-attorneys), will formally convene tomorrow for the first time in months.

3) The Texas Criminal Defense Lawyers Association is in town this week, and the Public Defender's Office in its most recent state had the potential to become the laughingstock of Texas' legal community had news of its mismanagement spread among these attorneys. (Right now that honor goes to Jefferson County).

4) It is an election year for County Judge Nelson Wolff, after all.

Dulany's position is very much an interim one for now, and in fact has not been confirmed by County Commissioners yet (it should be on the agenda when the Court reconvenes on June 24). However, it is at the very least a step in the right direction and shows a willingness on the County's part to engage critics rather than punish them, even if it took several months—if not years—to get to this point.

Today Dulany said, "I'm very optimistic that the County leaders want to do the right thing and want to have an effective, well-run Public Defender's Office. I'm very encouraged."

Dulany's immediate attention will turn to crafting a budget proposal for the next fiscal year. Issues such as hiring a permanent public defender (a function of the Oversight Board), expanding the office to include, possibly, additional mental health and appellate attorneys as well as a trial attorney program with appropriate support staff and participation from more than one judge, remain on the to-do list at this time.

 

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