by Joe Wilhelm Jr.
After 34 years in one office, it’s not an easy question to answer.
Public Defender Bill White has had the “What are you going to do next?” question following him around since Matt Shirk was elected as the next Public Defender for the Fourth Judicial Circuit in November.
His answer has been more convincing as of late.
“I’ve got an eye toward nonprofit right now,” said White. “There may be an opportunity to work for a nonprofit in an employee capacity.”
He has been involved with Take Stock in Children and Communities in Schools of Jacksonville as part of his life outside the courtroom.
Take Stock in Children is a comprehensive program that helps low-income children succeed by providing college and vocational scholarships, volunteer mentors, student advocates/case managers, tutoring, early intervention and long-term support.
Communities in Schools of Jacksonville is the largest local provider of in-school safety net programs and dropout prevention services. Each year its programs reach 6,600 students through a variety of in-school initiatives that include: literacy tutoring, after school programs, mentoring, scholarships and case management. White is a member of the board of directors for Communities in Schools and can picture himself in a daily role with the organization.
“It’s all about helping children,” said White. “The organization has multiple programs for at-risk youth and the whole goal is to get these kids through high school.”
Before he starts a new career, he’ll have to finish the one he began when he was hired by Lou Frost as an assistant public defender shortly after he passed the Bar exam in 1974. White was appointed Chief Assistant Public Defender in 1976 and served in that capacity until he successfully ran for the office in 2005.
“Lou (Frost) ran the office, but Bill managed the attorneys,” said Alan Chipperfield, one of White’s division chiefs who has worked with White for 29 years. “Lou may have approved the hiring of lawyers, but Bill did the interviewing and really shaped the office. He is absolutely dedicated and does the work for all the right reasons, he is there because he believes in the work.”
White has been involved in the creation of a homicide unit, special defense division and the development of “Life Over Death,” a training seminar that contributes to certification for attorneys to try capital cases. The seminar is offered through the Florida Public Defender Association and is taught statewide.
While White has enjoyed his time in the courtroom and improving how the Public Defender’s Office operates, the most satisfying part of his job has been to see the progression of attorneys who have worked in the Public Defender’s Office.
“The most satisfying part of the job has been hiring young lawyers and seeing them develop into the best attorneys in Jacksonville,” said White. “We’ve also seen some of our lawyers become judges.”
Duval County Judges Roberto Arias, Tyrie Boyer, Charles Cofer, Eleni Derke and Ronald Higbee all worked as Public Defenders with White.
“The ones who I have admired the most are the ones that didn’t come here as a stepping stone,” said White, “but came for the job of serving the poor and upholding the rights of our clients.”
White has the same qualities he admires in other attorneys, said Assistant Public Defender Lara Nezami.
“To do the job we do takes a special commitment that has to be inspired,” said Nezami. “That’s what Bill does, he inspires us to be better. His door is always open to anyone, from the newest to the most senior public defender.”