• February 19, 2020

TEXAS VIEW: Eiserloh offers strongest vision for county attorney - Odessa American: Texas Opinion

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TEXAS VIEW: Eiserloh offers strongest vision for county attorney

THE POINT: With her deep understanding of the office, Eiserloh is best equipped to deliver.

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Posted: Friday, February 14, 2020 2:30 am

The first contested race in a generation for Travis County attorney has drawn a remarkable field of candidates, including a veteran judge, an accomplished Austin City Council member and a criminal defense attorney pressing for criminal justice reform.

But in our view it is the lesser-known workhorse of the field — seasoned government attorney Laurie Eiserloh — who has the strongest experience and the most cogent vision for leading this office after longtime County Attorney David Escamilla retires. Four Democrats are competing in the March 3 primary that will likely decide the seat, as no Republicans are running for this position.

Eiserloh has worked for the past decade in the county attorney’s office, a law firm with a $24 million budget, 220 employees and sprawling responsibilities. Most notably, the office prosecutes misdemeanors such as drunken-driving cases and domestic violence. But it also goes after property owners who haven’t paid their taxes, provides legal advice to the Commissioners Court and represents county government in lawsuits.

Eiserloh has the best grip on where the office needs to go, starting with advocating for a system where police can take people to get mental health services instead of booking them into the jail — similar to how officers can take intoxicated people to the Sobering Center instead of arresting them. “I think in Travis County, we’ve got to get real about our lack of mental health diversion,” Eiserloh told our editorial board. She points to Harris County’s mental health diversion program as a model worth exploring.

She is also wary of the stain that a misdemeanor conviction can leave on a person’s record, harming a person’s ability to get a job, housing or a student loan. She calls for expanding restorative justice programs, which focus on building empathy and making amends, to handle certain offenses at schools, such as graffiti or minor scuffles, instead of having students arrested. She would build on the county attorney’s previous model for marijuana cases — offering a diversion program with no trace of an arrest on the person’s record — by applying that same approach to shoplifting and other low-level cases. (The office stopped prosecuting marijuana cases last summer, after a change in state law made it hard to distinguish pot from legalized hemp.)

On the civil side of the office, Eiserloh recognizes the proper role for the county attorney is to advise the Commissioners Court on legal options — not, as some opponents have suggested, to initiate their own lawsuits against the state or certain industries. Tempting as it might be to use the office as a bully pulpit, a county attorney who pursues his or her own political agenda will cease representing the Commissioners Court — ultimately leading to a diminished role for the county attorney as commissioners turn to outside counsel at taxpayers’ expense.

Eiserloh, whose decades of legal experience include stints in the attorney general’s office and the city of Austin’s law department, shares the March 3 ballot with three worthy opponents. Mike Denton, who stepped down from his County Court-at-Law bench last fall to run for this seat, oversaw the creation of the family violence court and the veterans’ court, in some cases providing life-saving interventions. Austin City Council Member Delia Garza has pushed for police to handle low-level offenses through tickets instead of arrests, and she championed increased city funding for social service programs that help families living on the margins. Defense attorney Dominic Selvera, having represented underprivileged clients, brings an unflinching understanding of the judicial system’s shortcomings.

We could envision all of them offering positive changes to the county attorney’s office. But with her deep understanding of the office, Eiserloh is best equipped to deliver on realistic, meaningful reforms that respect the needs of victims and defendants alike.

Odessa, TX

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