Harris County DA Leadership Vacuum
There is a leadership vacuum in the Harris County District Attorney’s Office.
At the top is the elected DA, Pat Lykos, and her immediate assistants, dictating office policy.
Dictating policy is not leadership.
At the bottom are the new assistant DAs—lawyers, generally 25-30 years old, who have joined the DA’s Office in the last three years or who were young prosecutors under Lykos’s predecessor, Chuck Rosenthal. They follow policy, and often are unhappy about the policy and their lack of discretion.
Following policy is not leadership.
Between the administration and the junior line prosecutors lies the leadership vacuum. There should be demonstrated leaders; instead, there’s lots of anonymous whining and namecalling (see, for example, the comments on Murray Newman’s blog).
Whining anonymously is not leadership. Calling the DA names is not leadership.
Lykos is in a primary fight; whoever wins the primary will wind up in a general-election fight, the outcome of which will likely depend on what happens at the top of the ticket. I’d call it a good even-money bet that twelve months from now Lykos won’t be DA. That reduces the risks of leadership. Maybe in the next month someone will step up. If Lykos loses the primary, someone will certainly try to position himself as a leader.
Opportunism is not leadership.
If Lykos loses, her policies won’t do her successor any good—they’re going to be running against those policies. He’ll need leadership in the office, or he’ll face chaos. Mike Anderson and Zach Fertitta, running for DA, will be hearing from prosecutors in the coming months. Before the primary, there will be prosecutors coming up to both of them saying, “I’m pulling for you.” After the primary, there will be more.
Kissing the potential next boss’s ass is not leadership.
I might have hoped that the prosecutors in my generation of lawyers—10–20 years out of law school—would be providing the leadership. But Lykos has them keeping their heads down. Leadership always requires courage, and the willingness to take a risk. Leadership in the Lykos DA’s Office is demonstrably dangerous. Donna Goode showed some leadership, questioning policy, and got run out of the office for “insubordination”l see also Murray Newman.
When the boss is wrong, leadership can look a lot like insubordination.
Some in the DA’s Office can’t afford to even take a chance of losing their jobs; I respect that. But others could afford to take a little risk—losing their jobs would not be the worst thing in the world, and might actually be good for them. Salary and benefits are addictive, though, and so Lykos’s efforts to suppress productive dissent have succeeded.
What would leadership have looked like at the Harris County DA’s Office? At a bare minimum, I think it would look like a more experienced prosecutor quietly taking the younger prosecutors aside, out of sight of the administration, and saying, “look, I know this sucks, and this isn’t what we signed on for, but we’re in this together, and it’s not going to last forever, so let’s sit down and talk about how to make the most we can of it”; ideally it would be a determined resistance: “If you think this policy shouldn’t be followed in a particular case, tell me and I’ll fade the heat. The worst they can do is fire me, and I’ve got Ted Oberg on speed dial.” A little subordination is not uncalled-for in this situation.
Where there is no leadership, there is no good example for the younger lawyers to follow. Capitulation is recapitulated.
Leadership creates leaders.
If Lykos is not reelected, whoever succeeds her will need The Resistance; what he will get is the Vichy Government. So he will need to go outside the office for leadership.
Murray says he’s not going back; Guiney is running for judge; Bill Hawkins seems to enjoy defense work; Goode is working on the island; and so forth. I get the impression that work at the Harris County DA’s Office seems like a lot of fun until you’ve been a criminal-defense lawyer, especially if you are making more money in private practice than you did working for the Crown. For lots of good reasons, I don’t think that there are many potential leaders who are eager to return to work at the Harris County DA’s Office.
So whoever wins the election—even if it is an inspirational leader—the lack of mid-level leadership will continue to plague the DA’s Office, possibly for years to come.
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