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Plan for indigent to choose attorney will get first test in Texas

NEW BRAUNFELS, Texas — Tommy Vaughn knows his clients may be distrustful when a court appoints him to handle their case. Without enough money to hire their own lawyer, defendants are often suspicious and believe that court-appointed attorneys will provide a poor defense or just try to coerce a quick guilty plea.

‘‘I kind of assume that’s what they’re thinking when I first meet them,’’ said Vaughn, who has worked as a defense attorney in Texas for 2½ years.

The issue of trust has long been part of a larger discussion about the quality of indigent defense in the United States. Now, the Central Texas county where Vaughn works will be the first in the country to let these individuals choose their attorneys at government expense.

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It’s part of a pilot program in Comal County that could determine whether the idea is adopted in other jurisdictions and provide a new way for how the Sixth and Fourteenth Amendments are exercised.

Under the system, a defendant who is declared indigent will be given a list of 30 to 50 attorneys approved by the county. An individual will have a day to make a choice.

Legal experts have suggested that defendants will be more invested in their cases and there will be more accountability for attorneys.

‘‘When the attorney has to earn the business for these indigent defense appointments, as opposed to being their turn in the rotation, they have new and stronger incentives to provide good quality services,’’ said Edwin Colfax, project manager for the Texas Indigent Defense Commission, which gave Comal County a $200,000 grant for the program, set to begin Jan. 12.

In countries such as Australia, Canada, and England, indigent defendants have for years been able to choose a lawyer.

In Texas, the most common indigent defense model is the ‘‘wheel’’ system, where judges appoint whichever lawyer on a previously approved list is next up on the rotation.

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The commission envisions the idea working in Comal partly because of its manageable size. The county has about 118,000 residents.

It’s unclear how well the concept would work in larger jurisdictions with an increased number of cases and possible issues with determining how defendants would be informed about the quality of attorneys. It will be tested for a year.