Division Director | Public Defender Division
Over the last 50 years, Texas RioGrande Legal Aid (TRLA) has become one of the largest and most acclaimed providers of legal services to the poor in the nation. Its Southwest Texas service area along the Mexican border includes some of the highest concentrations of poverty in the United States, giving rise to an exceptionally wide array of legal problems confronting its overwhelmingly Hispanic clientele. Founded in 1970 to address those problems on the civil side of the docket, TRLA accepted the challenges of providing effective criminal defense for its client community in 2006. As of 2021 the TRLA public defender program, with funding from the Texas Indigent Defense Commission (TIDC) and 14 participating counties, fields 35 lawyers in six offices from the San Antonio region to the Lower Rio Grande Valley. Those lawyers, supported by investigators, social workers, mental health peer specialists, paralegals and clerical staff, provide representation in felonies, misdemeanors and juvenile cases, from magistration through trial and appeal.
The TRLA defender program is one of the few in the country operated by a non-profit corporation. The 200-lawyer firm is governed by a board of directors composed of lawyers and representatives from the client community, and it establishes a significantly higher level of independence from local political pressures that are often present in defender programs. TIDC offers stable, long-term state funding for two-thirds of the costs of operation of TRLA’s rural regional program. A critical feature of that funding scheme is that it is conditional on strict caseload controls established by TIDC, assuring that staff defenders are able to render full service to every client.
TRLA emphasizes high quality, zealous representation for its clients, including effective trial advocacy, but it also has a critical role as an institutionalized force for desperately needed change in the Texas criminal justice system. Texas still relies on underpaid court-appointed private attorneys for the vast majority of indigent defense cases. With encouragement and 2/3rds state funding from TIDC, the burgeoning movement toward public defenders is still in its infancy and TRLA expects its program to expand into more and more rural counties. The new Division Director will lead that expansion and that reform.
One important role of the new Director will be to exploit more fully the wrap-around, holistic and fully integrated services available from the civil side of TRLA. The civil program offers services in 45 practice areas for TRLA clients, including defender clients; employment, housing, health care access, civil rights, housing, family and immigration are among the areas that are often relevant to the issues confronting defender clients.