With the election of Matt Shirk as Public Defender and the subsequent firings in the Public Defender’s Office now making the rounds on national criminal defense blogs, is it time for us to consider changing Florida’s system of electing public defenders? Several national blogs and their posters have suggested just that (here, here, here, and here). (Tip of the hat to Spidey for providing some links in a comment to another Jaxpolitics post on Shirk.)
In Florida, the Public Defender’s Office is responsible for providing legal counsel, when appointed by the Court, to those accused of criminal offenses who cannot afford to hire a lawyer. The office can be appointed to defend individuals charged with felonies, misdemeanors, or criminal traffic offenses in the Circuit and County Courts. It also defends children charged in Juvenile Court, and individuals facing involuntary commitment for mental treatment under the Baker Act. The Public Defender is elected for a four-year term with no limit on the number of terms.
The Bill of Rights, adopted in 1791 as the first 10 amendments to the U.S. Constitution, established that persons accused of committing a crime have the right to be represented by lawyers. Since that time the U.S. Supreme Court has interpreted that right to mean that if a defendant cannot afford to hire an attorney, the court will appoint one to represent him or her.
In 1972, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled the right to counsel applies in all cases where the defendant faces a jail term, no matter if the case is a felony or a misdemeanor. Subsequently, an overwhelming need for lawyers brought about rapid growth in the number of public defenders around the country. (Thanks to Public Defender Moorman’s (10th Judicial Circuit) website for the background information.)
Florida is only one of two states (the other is Tennessee) to elect public defenders. Several Nebraska counties and San Francisco, CA (along with a few other cities) also have elected public defenders. So, does the rest of the country know something we don’t?
Let’s be honest. How many of us regular folks who aren’t involved in the justice system, are willing to support someone in an elected office who will strongly fight for the rights of an accused person? How many of us are willing to put our votes behind spending money to defend murderers and drug dealers? As evidenced by the recent election in Jacksonville, evidently not enough of us. Yet, with an elected Public Defender the integrity of our justice system requires us to do just that if we are to maintain a healthy legal system.
Matt Shirk’s campaign, election, and subsequent actions have certainly brought criticism of Florida’s elected system to the forefront and a vigorous debate is ensuing here in Jacksonville. However, he certainly isn’t the only elected Public Defender facing criticism. So is Diamond Litty in the 19th Judicial Circuit. Litty evidently has insisted for years that she cannot get involved in a case for 21 days after someone is arrested, while other Public Defenders’ Offices require their lawyers to visit clients within 24 hours. Ms. Litty’s practice results in her clients sitting in jail for weeks for such things as disturbing the peace or violating open container laws.
Some States maintain centrally administered, statewide systems, while other jurisdictions have locally-elected public defenders, like Florida. Some jursidictions have appointed public defenders. However, many jurisdictions rely exclusively on private contract attorneys, assigned counsel systems, or similar arrangements outside a public defender office for indigent defense services. There are also publicly funded but privately operated public defender offices, such as those operating in West Virginia. It would be well worth our time to consider different options to our current system of electing public defenders.
In addition, many Public Defenders Offices throughout the nation are now overloaded with cases and have serious funding issues that must be addressed. Currently, public defenders in 7 states (including Florida) are either refusing to take on new cases or have filed lawsuits due to overburdened case loads which prevent them from providing effective assistance of counsel. (A column at TalkLeft discusses the current status of Public Defenders Offices in these 7 states and federal funding efforts.)
As another poster on The Agitator pointed out, there is an opportunity for us to begin discussions and engage Florida’s lawyers on the subject - the Florida Bar’s mid-year meeting occurs in Miami in January.
In the meantime, Mr. Shirk would do well to remember this creed.
I am a Public Defender
I am the guardian of the presumption of
innocence, due process and fair trial.
To me is entrusted the preservation
of those sacred principles.
I will promulgate them with courtesy and respect
but not with obsequiousness and not with fear.
For I am partisan; I am counsel for the defense.
Let none who oppose me forget that
With every fibre of my being I will
fight for my clients.
My clients are the indigent accused,
They are the lonely, the friendless.
My voice will be raised in their defense.
I will resolve all doubt in their favor.
This will be my credo; this and the Golden Rule.
I will seek acclaim and approval
only from my own conscience. And upon
my death, if there are a few lonely people who have benefited,
my efforts will not have been in vain