AMARILLO, Texas (KAMR/KCIT) – Outgoing Potter County Commissioner Alphonso Vaughn saw Monday’s meeting of the Potter County Commissioners’ Court as one for the history books – with the county officially seeing the opening of its combined Public Defender/Managed Assigned Counsel office, a program Vaughn has been championing prior to serving on the court.
“It’s very historical and it’s something that I think is going to be extremely beneficial to, not only the indigent population but for the families of those as well,” he said.
The Potter County Commissioners’ Court celebrated the opening of the Potter & Armstrong County Public Defender/Managed Assigned Counsel office during Monday’s meeting. This office, located on the second floor of the Santa Fe Building, located at 900 S Polk in Amarillo, is the result of work done by a committee, consisting of officials from the county including Vaughn, and other members of the legal community who studied the status of “criminal defense for… indigent defendants” in the two counties, according to the office’s website.
After years of work, and a study from the Sixth Amendment Center which addressed indigent defense issues within the two counties, the Potter County Commissioners’ Court established the office in September 2021, according to previous reports by MyHighPlains.com, combining the public defender and managed assigned counsel office.
Vaavia Rudd, the director of the Potter and Armstrong County Managed Assigned Counsel office, said that this hybrid system the two counties created is not common, with only a few counties throughout the state implementing this model.
According to the Texas Indigent Defense Commission, a public defender’s office gives a county, a state agency, or a nonprofit organization under contract with a respective entity, the chance to provide defense services and representation. The commission said that the office “is analogous to a prosecutor’s office” for the defense side, with attorneys being salaried employees who are “criminal defense specialists.”
The commission describes a managed assigned counsel program as being one that is similar to a public defender program, except that the attorneys are private contractors rather than direct employees of the entity providing defense services.
Rudd said the office’s staff began in June and have since hired attorneys for the office. Now that it is up and running, Rudd said the Managed Assigned Counsel office is doing the majority of the court appointments for Potter and Armstrong counties, instead of the judges themselves, reporting that 1,010 appointments have been made, the majority of which are felonies.
The overall goal of the public defender part of the office is for those attorneys to take between a third and half of the felony appointments, Rudd said.
“Basically, when we get a request for a court-appointed attorney, we take a look at it,” she said. “If it is a felony, the MAC office sends it to the public defender’s office. They do a complex check to make sure that they aren’t representing co-defendants or they haven’t represented the victim in the past or something like that.”
If there is a conflict of interest, Rudd said the case will come back to the managed assigned counsel office so a court-appointed attorney can take the case. But Rudd hopes that the combined offices will eventually begin to bring more attorneys into the pool, with the number of first- and second-degree felony cases that have yet to be tried.
“There are more first- and second-degree felonies than there are attorneys to take them,” she said. “So mathematically, it’s not possible for all of the attorneys on the court appointment list to stay within… caseload guidelines.”
The managed assigned counsel office also gives the chance for younger attorneys to be mentored by other attorneys in the region, Rudd said.
“If you’re a young public defender, I don’t want to give a young public defender their first murder and say ‘go do it,’” she said during Monday’s meeting. “They need to have sat with somebody else, and the same thing with people on the court-appointed list. The purpose of the MAC is to help those people on the court appointment list… Can (those new attorneys) do it without that? Absolutely. But is that the best defense that the client can have? No. So, our job is to provide the citizens of Potter County with the best defense that we can give them within our budget.”
During the meeting, John Board, the senior district judge and chair of the office’s oversight board, said the office has already shown that it has saved taxpayers money since it began. Judges in Potter County have also sung the office’s praises, with some saying that it was refreshing seeing the same number of people representing each side of a respective case in the courtroom.
Others also said the office has worked towards the goal of helping citizens who were accused, with Rudd stressing that the office has already seen “incredible results,” including not-guilty verdicts, dismissals, and suppression hearings. Officials also said that the office has also worked toward the goal of getting a return on its investment by county residents, saying that cases are moving more quickly through the system, costing the taxpayers less money.
As Vaughn approaches his final meeting as part of the Potter County Commissioners’ Court, he hopes this office is a part of his legacy, eventually expanding from Potter and Armstrong counties to the 26 counties of the Texas Panhandle.
Overall, Vaughn said that this office makes this region better “without a doubt,” with the prosecutorial side and the defense side now being equitable within the two counties.
“A lot of sweat and tears have (gone) into this to ensure that it has happened. I think getting everybody working together, that’s the beauty of it and that’s what service is about,” he said. “It’s not just about the individual but it’s about the collective group of individuals, corporations, directors, and entities working together to see a betterment for the good of the service for all individuals.”