When Harris County created the Office of Public Defender, it did something remarkably rare: It found the right person to create it and lead it. Alex Bunin built the real deal in Harris County, which had been a swamp of private indigent defenders milking the system and too-often providing no more than a warm body. Alex put together an office of excellent lawyers dedicated to their clients and at less cost to Houston. What more could you want from the guy?
Loyalty. Precinct 3 Commissioner Steve Radack was outraged that Alex’s loyalty was to his clients, to the poor people of Houston rather than to the commissioners who paid him.
The county attorney’s office has asked for an executive session at Tuesday’s Commissioners Court meeting to discuss its investigation of the public defender’s office, which is led by Chief Public Defender Alex Bunin.
Precinct 3 Commissioner Steve Radack said the probe has raised questions about whether the public defender’s office improperly leaked juvenile court records to plaintiffs who are suing Harris County and allowed a non-county employee, bail reform proponent Jay Jenkins, to work out of a county office. Radack did not rule out firing Bunin.
The Harris County bail scandal strikes at the core of the public defender’s duty. These are his clients denied bail, which implicates every aspect of his function. And both the district court and the Fifth Circuit agree.
Since 2016, Harris County has spent about $6 million fighting a class-action lawsuit in federal court brought on behalf of poor people arrested on low-level offenses, who say the county’s cash bail system is unconstitutional because it keeps defendants in jail solely because they are indigent. Chief U.S. District Judge Lee H. Rosenthal agreed, finding the county’s bail pretrial assessment process discriminated against poor people. She ordered the jail to begin releasing low-risk inmates with misdemeanor charges who cannot afford bail on personal recognizance bonds within 24 hours.
Rosenthal’s ruling, mostly upheld by the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, will be back in her court next week to begin implementing some revisions to her order. The 5th Circuit said Rosenthal’s 24-hour window was too strict, and suggested instead requiring poor defendants to receive a bail hearing within 48 hours.
The situation was so outrageous and fundamentally wrong the public defender wasn’t the only person to support the indigent defendants wrongfully denied release.
Bunin was one of a number of officials, including Harris County District Attorney Kim Ogg and Sheriff Ed Gonzalez, who filed affidavits in support of the indigent defendants. Two court-at-law judges also have urged the county to resolve the case rather than continue to fight it.
But Alex, as an employee of the county and thus subject to the vengeful caprice of Radack, has been targeted for investigation and punishment.
Radack said the county attorney’s investigation revealed that the public defender’s office, under Bunin, undermined the county’s case by improperly providing information to the plaintiffs’ lawyers in the bail case.
When informed by First County Attorney Robert Soard of the allegations against him, Alex provided a complete response to the fatuous allegations,
Bunin wrote that public defenders did provide names and racial descriptions of juvenile defendants to Jenkins, the bail reform advocate, but that information was not confidential. Bunin said his office has not released confidential information to anyone about bail hearings.
Nor was allowing Jenkins “use” of his office remotely improper. Quite the opposite.
A couple of years ago, when our office still had a few empty offices, I allowed him to use one on
an occasional basis. He brought his own phone and computer. His role was to be a liaison between us and the community. He helped us create a “Know Your Rights” program that brought our lawyers into schools and churches, teaching citizens their legal rights and how to respond to requests by law enforcement. He connected us to groups like Ministers Against Crime. He has helped us gather and assess statistical information about the criminal justice system in Harris County. His work was equivalent to that of unpaid interns used by your office, ours and the District Attorney’s Office. He has similarly worked for the Criminal Justice Coordinating Council on seeking and implementing the MacArthur Foundation’s Safety + Justice Challenge Grant.
Almost as if Harris County should have put Jenkins on the payroll for the services he provided, both the public defenders office as well as the people it existed to serve. But to Commissioner Radack, Alex’s first duty should have been to his political masters rather than the poor defendants he was there to serve, the people being abused and discriminated against by the bail system in place in Harris County.
Harris County Criminal Lawyers Association President Doug Murphy calls out Radack’s cynical attack for trying to make Alex the scapegoat for the county’s fiscal fiasco.
Harris County so far spent over $6 million dollars in their unsuccessful defense of these unlawful practices. The call for an investigation by Commissioner Radack is nothing more than a diversionary tactic and waste of further county resources that will reveal only one thing: Alex Bunin has an independent duty to protect and defend the indigent—an inherent duty of a public defender—even if that duty is at odds with Harris County. This obligation and duty may be offensive to Commissioner Radack, but spending $6 million dollars defending illegal bail practices should be offensive to Harris County residents.
When Alex Bunin was made Chief Public Defender and charged to create an office in Houston, it was, frankly, surprising that Harris County made such a wise choice to be worthy of someone as smart, honest and skilled.
Alex Bunin built the Harris County Public Defender’s Office with integrity, hard work, and outstanding leadership. The talented lawyers whom he personally recruited came because of him, and they stay because of him. The Harris County Criminal Lawyers Association supports continuing Alex Bunin as a true “Public Defender” of Harris County.
The Harris County Commissioners did surprisingly well by getting someone as exceptional as Alex Bunin to be their Public Defender. Whether they are worthy of keeping someone of Alex’s caliber remains to be seen. Houston needs Alex Bunin. It could, however, do without someone like Steve Radack, who squandered $6 million defending an unconstitutional bail system.
Update: After a testy hearing in public, rather than executive session, Alex Bunin will remain Public Defender.
“You have people from across the nation watching; you have people from across the state watching,” Houston defense lawyer Nicole DeBorde said. “They are all in support of Mr. Bunin and his defense of the Constitution and his clients, which he did ethically and lawfully.”