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Jax Daily Record Friday, Mar. 2, 201805:53 AM EST

A year of change and adjustment

State Attorney Melissa Nelson and Public Defender Charlie Cofer reflect on their first year in office.
by: Max Marbut Associate Editor

In the 14 months since they took office, 4th Judicial Circuit State Attorney Melissa Nelson and Public Defender Charlie Cofer have changed how their offices operate.

They also are working to change how the public perceives the work done by the state’s prosecutors and defense attorneys who represent defendants with criminal charges who can’t afford to hire an attorney.

And they’re adjusting to professional lives with responsibilities far different than those they had before being elected.

Nelson, who began her legal career as an assistant state attorney, was in private civil practice for seven years before her election. 

She had no interest in seeking public office until she decided it was time for a change in how defendants are prosecuted in Clay, Duval and Nassau counties.

“Politics wasn’t on my bucket list when I became a lawyer,” Nelson said.

Nelson was elected state attorney, defeating incumbent Angela Corey.

Corey, involved in several high-profile cases, prosecuted a 12-year-old as an adult for murder, sought a 60-year sentence for a female domestic violence victim who fired a warning shot at her assailant and prosecuted George Zimmerman for second-degree murder in the shooting death of Trayvon Martin.

It was time to “restore faith in the community in the good work the people at the state attorney’s office do” and time to instill “uniformity and fairness in all decisions,” Nelson said.

Cofer, a former assistant public defender in Jacksonville, was appointed Duval County judge in 1998 and re-elected three times without opposition. 

His predecessor, Matt Shirk, was investigated for professional conduct violations. Two months before the primary election, Shirk was censured, reprimanded and fined by the Florida Ethics Commission.

“I thought I’d finish my career on the bench,” Cofer said, but, “My view from the bench was that the office was struggling.”

Since taking office, Cofer and Nelson have stressed to their attorneys communication, professionalism and fulfilling each office’s specific purpose.

“The changes we’ve made aren’t that visible to the community, but visible to the legal system,” Cofer said.

“In order for the justice system to work, people have to believe in it,” Nelson said. “We serve at the public’s pleasure.”

Nelson and Cofer said they schedule monthly meetings to discuss issues that affect and arise in their offices. That philosophy extends to publicity as well.

“We try our cases in court, not the media. If there’s an issue between the offices, we handle it within the offices, not in the media,” Cofer said.

“We have a very healthy and professional relationship,” said Nelson.

Both have found that hiring and retaining talented attorneys can be a challenge, since government lawyers generally have lower income potential than those in the private sector.

“When we recruit, we are looking for the best and brightest law students,” Nelson said. “As a rule, people come to the state attorney’s office to gain trial experience, and then move to private practice.”

“It’s always a budget difficulty. The economics of our budget almost compel me to hire just out of law school,” Cofer said.

Each has been adjusting to changes in how they practice and the demands of their respective offices.

Cofer said he’s been surprised at how much of being the public defender is related to administration compared to the 19 years he served as a judge.

“I’ve got 145 employees – 81 lawyers – in three counties. But we’re getting on top of that,” he said.

For Nelson, the transition from private practice, during which time she never was in front of a jury, to state attorney has been about visibility.

“I’m getting used to having a public image. That is strange and foreign to me,” she said.

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