JUNIOR'S JUSTICE SYSTEM

BOZO BUSH PART OF CLOWNISH TEXAS LEGAL SYSTEM

Keep your fingers out of the cage, lady!This morning Tim Russert interviewed Dubya here in Austin. Perhaps Bush's most outrageous statement had to do with the Texas system of justice. Russert asked him if he would be willing to consider halting executions in light of the Illinois decision to do so because the guilt of those being executed was sometimes in question. Bush gave his usual arrogant answer--there was no doubt in his mind that everyone executed was guilty, so let the killings continue. Russert asked Bush how he could be so sure, since many Texans have questioned the justice system in Texas. In fact, Russert went on, both houses of the Texas legislature had passed a bill in the last session, tightening up the justice system for the poor who are unable to get anything other than state legal representation. Yet, Bush vetoed the bill when it came to his desk and Russert wanted to know why.

Bush said he didn't remember vetoing the bill, although he did so last June. A commercial break gave Karen Hughes or Karl Rove time to remind Bush of the veto, and during his next answer Bush rapidly mumbled a one sentence explanation that made no sense. Given the week of debates Bush's veto caused, both in Texas and throughout the nation, we marvel at the man's ability to turn one of the most serious concerns of a civilized society into just one more politicized answer, ending it with a smirk. Here's what Bush seems to have forgotten in less than a year.



POLITEX: BOZO BUSH PART OF CLOWNISH TEXAS LEGAL SYSTEM. ."In recent years the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals has upheld death sentences in at least three cases in which the defense lawyers slept during trial. The trial judge in one case reasoned that while the Constitution requires that a defendant be represented by a lawyer, it 'doesn't say the lawyer has to be awake,' " writes "Stephen Bright, the director of the Southern Center for Human Rights, an Atlanta-based organization that has provided extensive help to defendants in capital cases." In today's New York Times, Bob Herbert calls the justice system in Texas "clownish" because of its abysmal quality of legal representation," making our Governor Bush the head Bozo because he has, once again, bought into the system by vetoing a bill that would have given defendants some relief from the abysmally poor quality of justice dispensed in Texas.

How poor? "It is not uncommon for indigent defendants in Texas to remain in jail for months before they ever see a lawyer. Some see their lawyers for the first time on the day their trials begin, which makes it kind of difficult to mount a defense." One lawyer " who asked that his identity not be disclosed, complained to authorities in April that all defendants referred to his office had spent at least a month in jail before being assigned a lawyer. My most recent client," he said, "was in jail for 79 days before I was appointed to represent him. He is accused of four counts of theft by check for amounts under $500." Ever bounce a check? Without dissent, both the Republican Senate and the Democratic House passed a bill created by Sen. Rodney Ellis of Houston that addresses these problems: "The bill would have required... that indigent defendants be assigned a lawyer within 20 days after an arrest," Herbert explains. " In most jurisdictions in the U.S., a lawyer is assigned within 72 hours." It would have let county commissioners courts set up a council to select attorneys, contract with an outside association to appoint them, or leave the power with the judges. Judges throughout Texas, but particularly Judges in Ellis' district, were outraged that the bill would take the total power to select attorneys out of their hands and asked Bush to veto the bill for that reason.

Times reporter Herbert explains why the bill specifically wanted to limit that judicial power: "The judges are at the core of the problem. In Texas, the lawyers who ultimately represent the indigent are nearly always assigned by local judges, and the judges determine their fees. Cronyism, not competence, drives the process....Judges in Texas are elected, and it is clear that many are steering appointments in indigent cases to lawyers who have contributed to their campaigns. The system is riddled with ethical conflicts. The lawyers are too often on the side of the judges who are their benefactors rather than the defendants they are supposed to be representing. In short, a powerful special interest has spoken." (AAS, 6/18/99) What that "powerful interest" and Governor Bush have in common is campaign contributions from some of the same sources. Corporation-backed tort "reformers," for example. Tomorrow: How Dubya was warned in advance that a veto of the Ellis bill would come back to haunt him during the presidential campaign. 6/24/99


POLITEX: BOZO BUSH PART OF "CLOWNISH" TEXAS LEGAL SYSTEM, II. When Gov-Dub vetoed a bill designed to help poor defendants get a fair shake in the Texas system of justice, adrift in a sea of ethical conflicts and accusations of corrupt practices, he opened himself up to an issue that could easily become his "Willie Horton" when Al gets around to talking about it. As one of the bill's backers said in Wednesday's Statesman, "Until Bush vetoed the bill, it wasn't his system. He's no longer the governor of a state that has a bad system. Now it's his system." And it wasn't as though he wasn't warned. Two days before Bush signed the bill (6/18/99), a Bob Herbert column was published in the Statesman, presenting examples of the "abysmal" quality of Texas justice and describing the bill as "modest almost to the point of embarrassment. (It) will become law if Gov. Bush does not veto it before Sunday. He doesn't have to sign it. all he has to do is refrain from vetoing it." The only opposition to the bill came from the state's judges who, Herbert and others have concluded, are responsible for the problems the bill attempts to eliminate. Yet, the word around Austin was that Bush was planning to veto the bill, even though both chambers of the legislature moved it through without dissent. The Herbert article, then, was a warning to Bush, but it didn't come from the bill's sponsor, Sen. Rodney Ellis of Houston.

According to Austin reporter Dave McNeely, "Stephen B. Bright, with the Southern Center for Human Rights in Atlanta, confirmed he had sent to Herbert (at the New York Times) copies of articles he has written about Texas' justice process....'Texas is No. 1 in executions,' Bright noted, 'and the fact that the governor's part of all that is certain to become an issue at some point. What Texas is doing would certainly be unthinkable in a lot of other states.'" Herbert picked up the ball and ran with it, but, obviously, others must have cooperated along the way for the column to end up in the Statesman in time for Bush to have read it prior to the end of the bill signing period. We have little doubt that he was aware of the column by the time he signed the veto. As McNelly describes it, "the piece was obvious jawboning to try to keep (Bush) from vetoing the bill or at least to make him pay a political price if he did." But why did he veto it anyway"

Dubya gives two unlikely reasons for the veto. First, he said the bill was a "drastic" removal of power from judges. "Drastic" is a relative term, but given the state of the judicial system in Texas as described by Herbert in yesterday's Politex, the measures indicated in the bill are far from "drastic." Even the Dean of the University of Texas Law School called the bill desirable because it would "give both rich and poor defendants full access to the system," something that has not been happening under our present system of judges' control of trial lawyers for the poor. Second, George said that ordering the release of defendants not assigned a lawyer within 20 days "posesses a danger to public safety." This is a catch-22, because it assumes that the inadequate judicial system of court appointements would be kept in place. The bill, of course, removes this problem by taking the selection of trial lawyers out of hands of the foot-dragging judges. Ok, so what's George's real reason? The real reason is that Bush, through campaign contributions, friendships, and loyalities, has become part of the joke that is justice in Texas. And there's another side to this story that suggests further clarification by the Governor would be helpful. As Herbert describes it, "The quality of justice dispensed in Texas is routinely poor, whether the offense is a bounced check or murder. This is one of the reasons Texas is so efficient at marching concvicts into its execution chamber. There is not much concern over whether the accused is really guilty....George W. bush is on a merry ride that he hopes will end at the White House. Poor people accused of crimes in Texas are not part of that quest. They are no help to him." One exception: the record number of state executions since Bush has been governor help to prove that he's tough on crime. He tells reporters that there's no doubt in his mind that those executed are guilty. He says he has faith in the Texas system of justice. 6/25/99


POLITEX: TEXAS D.A. DEFENDS BUSH, ATTACKS NYT REPORTER. Yesterday on the op-ed page of the Austin American-Statesman, neighboring Williamson Country district attorney Ken Anderson accused New York Times columnist Bob Herbert of a "false characterization of the Texas (legal) system motivated by dislike for Gov. Bush." However, the only mention of Bush made in Anderson's piece ties George together with previous governor Ann Richards in creating a program that dropped crime "an amazing 35 percent from 1991." Herbert's column did not address the Richards-Bush initiative in any way, so we're at a loss to understand what Anderson means when he says that Herbert's column was motivated by a dislike of Bush. He provides no evidence for such a conclusion. (Since Anderson's remarks appear to address Herbert's June 17th NYT column, we've linked you to that. We wish we could have provided a link to the Anderson column, but the Statesman does not post op-ed columns on the web.)

We've previously suggested that Herbert's reason for writing the June 17th column was to jawbone Governor Bush into allowing the Ellis bill to become law in spite of the presssure he was getting from judges who felt the bill was an infringement upon their judicial rights. However, district attorney Anderson does not comment on Herbert's statements about the Ellis bill, or Governor Bush's possible position on the bill, or the position Texas judges have taken on the bill, or the support of the bill by the Dean of the UT Law School, or the headline in the Houston Chronicle about Texas judges wanting Bush to veto the bill, or the fact that Senator Ellis of Houston sponsored the bill, or that both branches of the Texas legislature passed the bill without dissent, or that the bill would require that an indigent defendent be assigned a lawyer within 20 days after a request for counsel. In short, someone reading Anderson's piece without reading Herbert's would be given a inacurate summary of Herbert's position. And not only because of what Anderson left out.

The Williamson Country D. A. begins by writing, "Herbert declared the Texas criminal system to be 'backward." Not exactly. Herbert actually wrote, "And when it comes to providing lawyers for indigent criminal defendents, it is one of the most backward states in the Union." (Anderson later says "the quality of indigent representation is (not) without problems. These problems, however, are no different than the problems (in other states)." The problems are never named.) He then has Herbert going on " to describe in detail the horrors of a gulag where the innocent languish in jail for lengthy periods of time." "Gulag" is Anderson's word, not Herbert's. Keep in mind that the three descriptions Herbert provides in his NYT story come from Brownsville, Hidalgo County, and a third, unnamed place in Texas. Anderson then paraphrases Herbert as stating, "ethically conflicted evil judges find 'lackeys, incompetents and drunks' to be their lawyers." "Evil" is Anderson's word: Herbert wrote that in Texas, where judges are elected, the appointment of lawyers who have contributed to their campaigns and have had their fees set by those same judges creates a "system riddled with ethical conflicts." Further, the Times reporter wrote: "Lackeys, incompentents and drunks are among the many feeding at this trough." Anderson then goes on to use personal anecdotal information to rebut his version of what Herbert wrote.

Rather than calling Brownsville or Hidalgo County, places provided in Herbert's examples of the need for the Ellis bill, the Williamson County D.A. calls unidentified people at unidentified places in Austin, Dallas, Houston, San Antonio, and Fort Worth, and is assurred by them, accoring to Anderson, that lawyers are appointed for prisoners within 72 hours. These phone calls, coupled with his own experiences in Williamson County, allow him to conclude that , "While Herbert wants the nation to believe that inmates languish in Texas jails for months without a lawyer, it simply isn't true." Perhaps Mr. Anderson needs to call Sen. Ellis, Dean Sharlot, most of the Texas House, most of the Texas Senate, the editorial board of the Houston Chronicle,, and Stephen Bright, the director of the Southern Center for Human Rights, and inform them that, based on his anecdotal study, they were wrong and he is right: prisoners in Texas get trial lawyers within 72 hours of their arrest. Also, the Williamson County D. A. might ask all of those people why they wasted so much time and money on a bill to provide a lawyer within 20 days of an arrest when it's such common knowledge that prisoners throughout Texas get lawyers within their first 72 hours in jail that one could obtain such assurances in less than 10 phone calls. Meanwhile, we are hopeful that such vague, anecdotal, selective evidence, provided without one shred of supporting documentation, would not be acceptable as proof of anything in Anderson's courts of law in Williamson County, Texas. 6/30/99


POLITEX: BUSH VETO HELPS TEXAS STAY AT LEGAL BOTTOM. This week another columnist added to the growing wealth of information indicating that something is very seriously wrong with Texas' legal system. Geoge W. Bush's veto of a mild bill that attempted to resolve one of the system's problems is indicative of his lack of concern. Texas is on the bottom rung of the nation's legal system, and the Guv appears unable, in his fifth year of office, to do anything about the problems being addressed by the bill. CNN-All Politics' Viveca Novak writes, "Here are just a couple of tales from the rough frontier of Texas justice: a teenager in Bexar County charged with drug crimes last September sat in jail for a month before his first scheduled meeting with a court-appointed lawyer. That attorney never showed up; and by the time the boy met the next one, he'd been behind bars more than three months. Andrew Cantu of Abilene was executed in February even though his third court-assigned appellate lawyer--the first two withdrew--didn't know how to find Cantu in prison, didn't do any investigation of the case and was unaware of the deadline for filing his final federal appeal."

This particular Texas legal problem is familiar to readers of Bush Watch: "Texas' reputation as a state without tender mercies for the accused is nowhere more apparent than in how it deals with defendants too poor to hire lawyers. They are provided with appointed counsel, but the competency of these lawyers, the rates they are paid and the speed with which they are assigned have shocked even impartial criminal-justice experts." Like Williamson County, Tx. D.A. Ken Anderson, Novak indicates that the system of providing lawyers for the poor is shameful throughout the nation, but, unlike Anderson, she sees it as being even worse in Texas: "As bad as things are elsewhere, Texas is at the bottom of the heap. There's no state oversight or funding for a system that relies on individual judges to appoint counsel and decide rates. The judges, says retired appellate judge Charles Baird, often care more about finishing a case than giving a defendant an aggressive advocate. The miserable pay ensures that most lawyers do little for their clients. In Cameron County attorneys earn a maximum of $100 per misdemeanor case and $350 per felony regardless of the effort required. Lawyers who get their clients to plead guilty make money on the deal and also please the judges, to whom they sometimes give campaign contributions."

Actually, Dubya faces a double-whammy with respect to his lack of support for insuring that poor prisoners in Texas be given a lawyer to represent them within 72 hours. First, " Governor George W. Bush may face some flak for claiming to be a 'compassionate conservative,' having just vetoed a bill intended to improve the system modestly." Secondly, "the front-running G.O.P. presidential candidate could still find himself embroiled in a debate about the sorry state of indigent defense, not just in Texas but in the rest of the U.S. as well. For one thing, the Supreme Court will consider later this year whether to tighten the standard for legal competency, after hearing a case involving bungled defense work on behalf of a convicted Virginia murderer with an appointed lawyer." This issue could very well become Bush's "Willie Horton," but this time a Bush would be on the receiving end of the political criticism. 7/4/99


POLITEX: FIRST AND SIXTH AMENDMENTS GET IN GEORGE'S WAY. Did Bush lie to us? Like a seeping stain, George W. Bush's disregard for our constitutional protections is beginning to spread. In his most recent column in the Washington Post, Nat Hentoff writes that Bush "has been accused of not being sufficiently specific on issues. But now he has been utterly clear in his indifference to, or ignorance of, a fundamental constitutional right," the right to due process, guaranteed under the Sixth Amendment to the Constitution.

Hentoff's review of the bill Bush vetoed calls our attention to a key idea in the bill that Bush has either lied to us about or was just too incompetent to understand: "This year the entire Texas Senate and House passed a reform bill without an objection by a member of either party. It would have taken the appointment power away from judges and placed it in an 'appointing authority' supervised by county commissioners. That authority would be mandated to create and make public a list of qualified lawyers. Under this centralized system, it would be more difficult for politically connected lawyers to get assignments. In addition, if an indigent defendant asked for an attorney, one would have to be appointed within 20 days. If one were not, a hearing would be held and a judge could appoint a lawyer. The defendant would not be released. Also, rural counties would have the authority to create regional public defenders' offices with full-time lawyers. And county auditors would be required to submit annual reports on the nature and quality of counsel for the jailed poor." Did Bush lie to us? Here's the relevant reason he gave for his veto: ordering the release of defendants not assigned a lawyer within 20 days "posesses a danger to public safety." As one can see from Hentoff's summary of the bill above, the bill specifically indicates that "the defendant would not be released." Either Bush lied to us or he's an incompetent administrator, not even knowing what he's vetoing. Take your pick.

With respect to Bush's trampling of the free speech amendment, Hentoff writes, "Bush has specifically declared himself in favor of a constitutional amendment punishing flag desecration. His willingness to radically diminish the First Amendment now also is manifest." Two other examples come to mind. First, his attack of a parody web site with the words, "There should be limits to freedom," as if the First Amendment does not exist. Secondly, his backing of the unconstitutional House bill directing public institutions to place the Ten Commandments on the wall of each classroom. When asked which version of the Ten Commandments he was talking about, he looked puzzled, then said he was sure that could be worked out. Uh-huh. One is left to conclude that Bush is more interested in his political needs of the moment than the constitutional rights of the people he was elected to govern.

Note: Because George got a degree in history from Yale, Chris Matthews and others are beginning to call him an historian. Matthews uses the phrase, "lover of history." Please. The danger here is that some might assume that, because some misguided souls are calling Bush an historian, he knows what he's talking about with respect to constitutional rights. Some months ago reporters asked his brains, Karl Rove, what Bush's favorite political books were. Rove shot back a list of Karl Rove's favorite political books. Later, in a C-Span interview of some duration, Bush was asked, as a history major, to name some books that have influenced him. He couldn't name a book. Not one. He remembered he had read something in a course about the Mississsippi floods. Sure, George. 7/5-7/99



Reprinted by permission of Bush Watch. Copyright 1999, Politex. All rights reserved. No transmission may be copied, downloaded, stored in a retrieval system, further transmitted or otherwise reproduced, stored, disseminated, transferred or used, in any form or by any means without prior written agreement.




Click Here!