The Rorschach Ink-Blot Debate

 Posted on February 20, 2008 in Uncategorized

There was something for everyone last night; supporters of Kelly Siegler liked how she came out, supporters of Jim Leitner thought he clearly won. Supporters of Doug Perry saw a honest, nice man who would be the right guy for the job if the job were what he thinks it is: a CEO / ambassador position that doesn't involve leading 250+ trial lawyers. Even supporters of Pat Lykos thought their candidate looked most like a district attorney.

One of the two candidates who has never tried a criminal case (Doug Perry) took some heat for it. The other (Pat Lykos) got a free pass; I wonder if the candidates seriously believe that presiding over criminal cases as a judge is somehow equivalent to trying them as a prosecutor. It isn't.

Here (part I) and here (part II) is KHOU's video of the debate. Here is the Chronicle's coverage. Here, here, and here are AHCL's other posts about the debate.

Jim was unscripted, fluent, and passionate. Pat was the opposite, but had a big made-for-TV smile on. Doug Perry was a decent human being, a little out of his depth. Kelly seemed uncharacteristically nervous; she could have stood to have smiled a bit (though I did notice her holding back a laugh both times Pat said "rule of law").

Almost everyone seemed to agree that there were problems with the culture of the DA's office. Everyone but Kelly, who (for obvious reasons) argued that Chuck was the whole problem.

There is certainly a public perception that the Harris County DA's Office suffers from a culture of arrogance.

Is this perception well-founded (and therefore fair)? Yes. The Office has been opaque in recent memory, and every time its culture has come to the public's attention, arrogance has been revealed.

Is it fair to hold Kelly partly responsible for this perception? Absolutely. Kelly has been the single most prominent member of the Office in the last eight years; she rose to prominence in Chuck Rosenthal's Office. That Office is a bureaucracy. If Kelly had been an agent for change in Chuck Rosenthal's Office, or if she had even sought change, there would be a record - a memo, an email, meeting notes - of it somewhere. If she, a division chief (only the First Assistant and Chuck Rosenthal rank higher than her on the organizational chart), was not an agent for change - if she didn't even try to change things - then it's not unfair to hold her accountable for the DA's office culture, even if - as AHCL insists - Chuck kept his own counsel.

Is the public perception that the Harris County DA's Office suffers from a culture of arrogance accurate? As an outsider more acquainted with the office than most of the public, I've been saying so for years. (A search of my hard drive reveals that I first used the phrase "culture of arrogance" in writing in March 2006 when a young prosecutor berated a jury for its verdict, the jury complained, and the elected DA criticized the jurors for complaining. At the time I believe Kelly Siegler was in charge of the Office's Professional Development Program, which should have been instructing young lawyers in their ethical duties as well as winning at all costs.)

I think a culture of arrogance is an inevitable result of taking callow lawyers - children, really, with no experience of the difficulties that most of the humans passing through the courthouse suffer every day (do I exaggerate? AHCL earnestly described January as the "the worst month of [ADAs'] professional lives") - and putting them in charge of deciding which of those humans go to prison and which go free without ethical adult supervision.

Is it fair to hold Kelly partly responsible for this truth? Absolutely, and for the same reasons that would be fair to hold her responsible for the perception even if the perception were not true. Further, Kelly's own philosophy, stated in the public TV candidates' debate last week - "our job is to decide who is guilty and then do everything possible to convict them" - may play well with the voters, but it is not the law (as - it pains me to say this - Pat Lykos keeps saying), and it expresses the essence of prosecutorial arrogance

It is not only the defense lawyers and public who have noticed the arrogance of the Rosenthal-Siegler DA's office; judges have noticed as well. A judge who came to the bench directly from the Office (as though that narrows things down at all) commented to me recently that the uncertainty in the DA's Office might make some prosecutors less arrogant. "They need it," he said.

(The last six weeks of uncertainty, incidentally, have worked wonders on the prosecutors' arrogance. It is a rare public servant whose attitude is not improved by the realization that he serves at the pleasure not only of the Republican Party but also of the human beings who vote in the elections. The difference down at the courthouse has been conspicuous.)

As much as change is needed in the DA's office, however, Pat Lykos said nothing in yesterday evening's debate to convince me that she will bring better change than Kelly Siegler. I think Kelly would make a better DA than Pat Lykos. So why do I pick on her? Because for some reason I expect better of her.

Given that the debate wasn't likely to change anyone's mind, I thought of a question that I wish had been asked of the candidates:

If not you, then who? Who is the second-most-qualified candidate for the position you seek?

I've emailed the candidates to ask them.

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