EDITOR DANIEL CLIFTON
AUSTIN — The Sixth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution doesn’t get the fanfare of the first and second, but to Morgan Shell, it’s a very important one for all Americans.
“To me, it’s one of the most important rights we have,” she explained.
The amendment outlines the rights of the accused in criminal prosecutions, which include having “the assistance of counsel for his defence.”
The Sixth Amendment is a big part of Shell’s role as a policy analyst for the Texas Indigent Defense Commission, located just yards west of the Capitol in Austin. The commission works in a number of ways to help counties provide high-quality yet cost-effective indigent defense programs, and Shell’s right in the mix of it, working to identify innovative programs across the state and country and helping craft possible legislation to present to state lawmakers during Texas Legislative sessions.
For indigent defense, a county or other government body must provide an attorney for a defendant who cannot afford one. Shell pointed out that it’s not just a matter of providing a defense attorney; it has to be a good and effective counsel.
Shell might have been born to do this type of work as the daughter of Burnet County attorneys Eddie and Dale Shell. However, she put in the hard work and and the years of study to be in a position to work on behalf of thousands of Texans.
Shell, a 2008 Marble Falls High School graduate, could have pursued any number of careers. As a youth, she saw the hours her parents devoted to their law practice. An attorney’s life isn’t exactly like what TV shows make it out to be: last-second saves before a jury. It’s long days, lots of behind-the-scenes work, and frustration. There are rewards, such as providing great counsel for those facing difficult situations.
“I think law school and law practice was always on the back burner, but I really wanted to explore other options,” Morgan Shell said.
After high school, she headed to Southern Methodist University, to play basketball (she was a four-year varsity player for Marble Falls), but after the first year, she transferred to the University of Denver, where she majored in international studies with the idea of one day working for a non-governmental organization (NGO).
She continued to play basketball while attending college in the Mile High City.
The mix of basketball and academics was definitely strenuous with the travel, practices, classes, and studying.
“Playing basketball (in college) was definitely challenging because it was like having a full-time job,” Shell explained. “For me, it was even so much more challenging because my academics were so important.”
This meant long days, both on the court and in the classroom, but she found ways to expand her world. During the summer of 2011, Shell headed to Spain to study abroad.
“It really did give me a bigger perspective on life,” Shell said. “I think traveling, studying abroad, helps in every aspect of your life.”
She returned to Spain to teach English for six months after graduating from the University of Denver in 2012. Yet, her longterm future wasn’t particularly clear. With her background in athletics, coaching was a possibility.
However, Shell picked law and went to the Texas Tech University School of Law in Lubbock. She chose the school over several others because of its strong academics and the opportunities it would provide.
But first, she had to complete law school.
“The first year, they try to kill you; the second year, they work you to death; and the third year, it’s just a little bit better than the first two years,” Shell said.
She credited her basketball background for the endurance and discipline it took to complete law school.
During her third (and final) year in law school, Shell interned with the Texas Indigent Defense Commission. During her internship, she found a place with a mission that fit her. After graduating from law school in May 2017, she continued her work with the commission.
The career doesn’t involve courtroom trials, but the work is important. As a policy analyst, she does a lot of research into different indigent defense programs and strategies.
“I work with contracts, do research on innovative defense strategies in Texas, and a lot of data collection,” Shell said. “I’m trying to get the national pulse on how counties are using innovative approaches to indigent defense, or just good defense counsel.”
During her internship, the commission’s efforts also took place in the halls of the Capitol during the 2017 Legislative session. The commission works closely with the Texas Judicial Council, which is the policy-making body of the Texas judicial branch. This often meant meeting with state leaders about legislation the TIDC supported.
The experience gave Shell a real look at how legislation gets passed, or doesn’t.
“It’s easier said than done to get a bill passed,” she said. “There are so many layers involved. It’s constant work to keep your bills in play.”
Few bills ever make it into law. Shell saw more than one of the bills she would have liked become law, even ones she worked on, never reach the governor’s desk.
“You put so much passion into the bills that mean so much to you,” she said. “You really do have to pick yourself back up when one doesn’t make it. But I learned not to get discouraged when one of your bills doesn’t get passed because it’s a process.”
When the legislative session ended, the work continued, though Shell spent a big part of the summer studying (and then passing) the state bar exam.
Shell enjoys having a mission that helps ensure all Texans get high-quality defense counsel. While some laypeople might question the value of an effective indigent defense or, even, a strong defense system at all, Shell sees it as fundamental right we all share.
“What would it look like if we didn’t have this right and everyone didn’t have access to an effective legal defense,” she said. “It’s really a check on the government, which to me, is one of the fundamentally most important things to a free nation.”