Alex Bunin founded the first and only public defender’s office in Houston, Texas, replacing the traditional folk custom of appointment-by-donation-to-the-judge’s-campaign. Asked in an interview with Simple Justice how he was received by the Jumbo State’s legal establishment, Alex said, “The biggest obstacle was the imaginary fear that all criminal defense would be turned over to a giant incompetent socialist machine. I guess we are a socialist machine, but small and competent.” After only six years in existence, the Public Defender’s Office has outstripped the private and retained bar in the number of trials, acquittals, dismissals and non-custodial sentences for the indigent accused.
A transplanted New Yorker, Alex rides his bicycle to work whenever Houston’s streets are above water.
Think of this as a public service announcement for those New York attorneys wishing to understand Texas and vice-versa. First, it is important to know that each state’s courts employ confusing names. Both have supreme courts, but neither is necessarily supreme. The dictionary defines “supreme” as “an authority of office superior to all others.” However, this definition does not apply in either state.
In New York, the Supreme Court is a trial court. In Texas, the Supreme Court is co-equal with another body called the Court of Criminal Appeals. A second dictionary definition of supreme is “a rich cream sauce.” That explanation may be more appropriate. In neither state is the Supreme Court superior to all others, but either version can separate and burn when there is too much heat.
Both states have intermediate courts of appeal. New York calls them departments. In Texas, departments are typically retail stores like Dillard’s or Palais Royal. Texas courts of appeal are called just that, but the clarity ends there. In New York, its highest authority is the Court of Appeals, or what English majors would call its supreme court.
Aside from the exquisite naming differences, lawyers in the two states simply speak differently. New York attorneys are “on trial” the same as they are “on line” waiting for a hero sandwich. Texans are “in trial” as they are “in line” waiting for a po’boy sandwich. In the Empire State, as in most places, the legal phrase for jury selection is pronounced “vwar deer.” In Texas is “vore dire.” Texans love to pronounce names in the least intuitive manner possible. If you are not from Texas, try saying “Bexar”, “Humble”, or “Refugio.” No, you got them all wrong.
New Yorkers also create their own difficult pronunciations, sometimes by mistake. Houston Street is in lower Manhattan (pronounced “How-sten”). It is a misspelling, meant to honor William Houstoun, a Georgia delegate to the Constitutional Convention. It has no relation to the city where I live, Houston (pronounced “Hyoo-sten”). My city is named after Sam Houston, the governor of two states (Tennessee and Texas), a U.S. Senator (Texas) and a President (Republic of Texas). He was also the major general who led his troops to victory in the final battle for Texas independence from Mexico.
If you are standing anywhere in New York State and someone refers to “the City”, you know they are referring to one place — New York City. Residents of NYC think the rest of the state is a somewhat inferior civilization. Texans feel the same about the entire United States, including NYC. Texas was once an independent country and, after several beers, some citizens occasionally ponder secession.
Texans prize firearms above most possessions. With the proper permit you can even bring your weapon into the State Capitol in case you need to draw down on some subversive pol suggesting renaming the State Bird. You can “open carry” your guns at our finest institutions of higher learning. You cannot, however, purchase beer before noon on Sunday because all heck would break loose.
Having spent about half my life in each state, I consider myself a neutral observer. New York has improved to the point that restaurants no longer pass off marinara sauce as salsa, nor meat fried over charcoal as barbeque. Houston is now the most ethnically diverse city in the United States. Both are border states and neither needs, nor wants, a wall. If you live in one, come visit the other. I recommend it.
Alex Bunin, Harris County Public Defender