I Choose You! Indigents Get to Pick Appointed Counsel

, Texas Lawyer

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Lawyers who represent low-income criminal defendants in Comal County may have to step up their game under a new test program that opens the world of indigent defense to the free market.

With a $200,000 grant from the Texas Indigent Defense Commission, Comal County is piloting a client-choice indigent-defense program that puts the defendant in charge of selecting his lawyer from a county-provided list of qualified attorneys. Judges or court administrators normally assign lawyers by rotation.

"By having the attorneys directly more beholden to the defendant him or herself, as opposed to judges or court administrators, they're more likely to provide effective service, to communicate well with their clients and to be focused on zealous, defendant-oriented advocacy, as opposed to expediency," said Edwin Colfax, TIDC project manager.

Comal County Criminal District Attorney Jennifer Tharp wrote in an email that she's "excited" about the client-choice program because it could lead defendants to trust their attorneys more and cause cases to move efficiently through the system.

Prosecutors pondered the idea and found no negative impacts on their end, she noted.

"We want defendants to have good representation. We want the defendants to trust their attorney," she wrote.

New Braunfels criminal-defense lawyer Deborah Wigington sits on the advisory panel that's helping the TIDC formulate the program's details.

"I think we're all kind of excited, with a little trepidation about how it's going to go. Everyone feels it's new and novel, something that we want to try," said Wigington, owner of Deborah Linnartz Wigington & Associates. "It's a little scary to see how it's going to be implemented."

Among other concerns, Wigington said that indigent defendants might call five or six lawyers and spend an hour interviewing each one before choosing their attorney. But the county pays just $250 to $300 for each appointment, so it could be "cost inefficient" for lawyers to spend time on such pre-client interviews.

There could also be pros and cons for clients.

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