March-April 2007

President’s Column

Many of you have been watching the progress of Senate Bill 844 by Juan “Chuy” Hinojosa (D–McAllen) and House Bill 1356 by Dan Gattis (R–Georgetown).  These companion bills seek to include all assistant county attorneys in the state longevity pay program now enjoyed by assistants in offices with felony jurisdiction. By all accounts this program, launched three sessions ago thanks to the efforts of former Harris County Assistant District Attorney and Representative Vilma Luna (D–Corpus Christi), has had a real impact on the ability of assistants in felony offices to stick with the job.

Our thanks should go to Scott Brumley (CA in Amarillo) and David Weeks (CDA in Huntsville) for working to expand this program to assistant county attorneys. Passing any legislation is always a challenge. The hardest part about passing this legislation may be that the title “assistant county attorney” and the job description don’t match up in many people’s minds.

Texas prosecutors are pretty comfortable with all of our names:  county attorney, county and district attorney, county attorney with felony responsibility, district attorney, and criminal district attorney. But you can tell where others might be a little confused. To the uninitiated, you can also see where people may think that the “county attorney” is just that: the attorney for the county. But our county attorneys and assistant county attorneys have duties to the State that even they probably don’t know about.

Under the Texas Constitution, the original attorney for the state was the county attorney, unless there was a district attorney or criminal district attorney in the jurisdiction. Notwithstanding the creation of many district attorney, criminal district attorney, and district and county attorney offices (there are now 155, with 1,950 assistants), we still have 177 constitutional county attorneys and 356 assistant county attorneys who have significant duties to represent the State in criminal and other matters.

As part of our education process, TDCAA’s Shannon Edmonds spent about six months reviewing Texas law page by page and cataloging  every enumerated duty of county attorneys to represent the State. Some are obvious: County attorneys carry a huge load when it comes to criminal misdemeanor prosecutions, which not too long ago was expanded to require representation of the State in all justice of the peace courts. County attorneys were also tapped to handle family violence protective orders. And some of a county attorney’s most important work is in representing the Department of Family and Protective Services and children who are in danger. Over 90 percent of those cases are handled by county attorneys’ offices, and it seems to be a growth industry. Additionally, in the last legislative session, county attorneys were ordered to represent Adult Protective Services.

What most citizens don’t know is that county attorneys and their assistants are required to represent 41 different state agencies, boards, and districts in all sorts of situations. Agencies such as the Department of Agriculture, General Land Office, Parks and Wildlife Commission, and State Chest Hospital Administrator (in a civil collections capacity) may call upon the local county attorney. In addition, the legislature has given 26 state agencies and other legal entities the right to ask the county attorney for legal representation in certain circumstances. That list includes the Office of the Governor, the Department of Licensing and Regulation, and the Center for Infectious Disease.

What’s more, a case can be made that the assistant county attorney’s work is even more important to the State. Of course, felony assistants have a duty to prosecute murderers and other violent criminals. But who protects the “Go Texan” program? Who is on the front lines of Mexican fruit fly control? Who protects the integrity of our bees, honey, and eggs? Who stops scabies in its tracks? Who is responsible for seizing all the illicit beverages in a county? Who puts the hurt on illegal international matchmaking? Who makes sure that your massage is performed by a professional? Who takes up the many causes of local zoo animals? And finally, who else but the county attorney maintains vigilance against sedition, sabotage, and Communism? No kidding:  All of these duties are just a small slice of the county attorney’s job description, courtesy of the Texas Legislature.

The final list that Shannon compiled is too extensive to enumerate in The Texas Prosecutor. And while my presentation in the previous paragraph may be a bit lighthearted, the work is serious, and there certainly is a lot of it. Assistant county attorneys are truly attorneys for the State, and I hope they can get that recognition during this legislative session.