By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
What, Price justice?: Three decades ago, I was a baby lawyer smitten with the notion of becoming a public defender. It seemed the pure practice of law, unfettered by the ethical challenges of collecting a fee from clients who were doing their manipulative best to beat me out of one.
Doubt I would harbor those same romanticized notions today, not with last month's forced resignation of Dallas County's Chief Public Defender Brad Lollar, who suddenly seems the fall guy for the county's alleged $34 million budget shortfall. Dallas County Commissioner John Wiley Price says Lollar ran an inefficient PD's office, "turning it into a retirement home for his friends"—even though the Task Force on Indigent Defense (as reported in Texas Lawyer this week) is heralding the office as a statewide model.
Truth is, Price was against Lollar's hire in 2005, and the two have been in a pissing match ever since. Price has involved himself in hiring decisions, says Lollar, and has requested the résumés of every lawyer on his staff. "He had the view that I was hiring my friends, and that's just not true," Lollar says.
Yet things remained tolerable for Lollar, who grew the office and added an appellate section—all with the commissioners' approval. But when budgetary projections headed south, so did his relationship with commissioners. Led by Price, the commissioners wanted to know how Lollar could get the judges to better use the public defenders office and spend less county money on the more costly court-appointed system of private lawyers some judges preferred; also, they asked whether the PD's office could become more efficient if it required its felony-grade attorneys to increase their cases by one-third.
"I told them that I had no control over whether a judge appoints us or private counsel," Lollar says. "And I had to take a stand for quality representation by refusing to overload my lawyers."
Obviously, that's not what Price et al. wanted to hear. On June 10, Lollar was told that the commissioners wanted "a change of direction"; he took the hint and resigned. Price now admits Lollar was terminated, and another four to five lawyers have been shoved out the door, with more to follow. Price says the PD's work ethic is much better, but that might be more from fear than anything.
And how shortsighted of our county fathers: It won't exactly be cost-efficient when a higher court finds an overburdened attorney ineffective and orders a retrial at more cost to taxpayers. Instead of eliminating the appellate section as threatened, why not give its lawyers a chance to gain the expertise that will convince more judges to select them rather than their pricier counterparts? What's more, by forcing Lollar out, the commissioners have incurred additional costs. He has returned to private practice—and he's already taking court appointments.