Travis County runs up against tight deadline to create public defender’s office

Members of the indigent legal services work group update Travis County commissioners March 5.

Members of the indigent legal services work group update Travis County commissioners March 5.

Updated March 7 at 10:25 a.m. to correct the number of work group members affiliated with the Austin Criminal Defense Lawyer Association who resigned 

In an effort to establish a public defender’s office—and running up against a tight deadline—Travis County commissioners await notice from the Texas Indigent Defense Committee on whether the county will be waived of a requirement to submit a letter of intent.

At the recommendation of the TIDC, the court formed a 14-member indigent legal services work group last fall. In February, two members of the group, both of whom were associated with the Austin Criminal Defense Lawyer Association, resigned, citing conflict with activist members.

The work group is responsible for drafting a letter of intent, due on March 11, as part of an application for a four-year grant program offered by the TIDC. The grant provides funding for counties to establish a public defender’s office, which would represent individuals who cannot afford legal counsel.

The vacancies that resulted from the ACDLA members’ resignation have left the work group at a disadvantage, said Amanda Woog, executive director of the Texas Fair Defense Project and chair of the work group, at a March 5 Commissioners Court meeting.

“The spots that are vacant are especially conspicuous right now as we try to engage with the [Travis County criminal court] judges,” Woog said, explaining the work group has received feedback from judges that they are more willing to talk to lawyers than with the group’s remaining members.

The letter of intent needs to be approved by county commissioners, some of whom indicated support from county judges would be critical.

“I just cannot imagine going out and trying to make changes [to indigent legal defense] without their involvement,” Precinct 2 Commissioner Brigid Shea said.

The work group drafted a letter of intent for commissioners to review at the March 5 meeting. County Judge Sarah Eckhardt said commissioners also received a letter from Travis County criminal judges saying they “do not favor” the draft as it stands.

While Woog said the work group continues “diligently working toward a draft proposal” that all parties can support, the commissioners will next meet March 12—after the deadline to submit a letter of intent has passed.

As a workaround, TIDC Executive Director Geoffrey Burkhart is asking the committee to waive its requirement of a letter of intent for Travis County; the committee will consider the proposal at its March 7 meeting.

“My expectation, although it may not be met, … is that we will get to a partnership with the Texas Indigent Defense Commission to move us forward on the charge,” Eckhardt said.
By Emma Freer

Emma Freer began covering Central Austin for Community Impact Newspaper in 2017. Her beat includes the Travis County Commissioners Court and local business news. She graduated from Columbia Journalism School in 2017.


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