by Max Marbut
“By defending the poor, we uphold the law. By upholding the law, we defend the public.”
Bill White authored that motto years ago when he was an assistant in the Fourth Judicial Circuit Public Defenders Office. There is a 155-word “Public Defender Creed” that is recognized nationwide but White felt the service performed by attorneys who defend those who would otherwise be without defense could be expressed more succinctly.
His entire legal career has been spent as a Public Defender in Jacksonville, first as an intern fresh out of law school at the University of Florida in 1974. He came on board as an assistant in 1976 and was elected to the top post in 2004 following the retirement of Lou Frost, who joined the office in 1963 as one of Florida’s first Public Defenders.
He said he sees the role of the Public Defender as the third part of law enforcement. That role is even more important because the clients White and his staff represent are indigent and could be incarcerated if found guilty. Without counsel provided by the State, those defendants would have no one on their side in court.
“The function of the police department is to serve and protect the community. The State Attorney’s mission is to seek justice. As Public Defenders, we question authority and zealously advocate for our clients within the bounds of the law.
“The system is stacked against the individual. We’re between the defendant and the freight train of the justice system,” said White.
The Law Offices of the Public Defender in the Fourth Judicial Circuit has a staff of 79 attorneys, 12 investigators and 44 support staff in three offices to serve indigent clients in Duval, Clay and Nassau counties. At any given time, there are hundreds of cases pending ranging from things you read about on the front page of the newspaper to disorderly intoxication.
White said he understands what motivates attorneys who choose to work as a Public Defender because the same things motivated him.
“It’s not the money because the starting salary is just over $40,000 a year and the average is a little more than $62,000. It’s not the social status or prestige. You have to have something inside.
“I felt the Public Defender was kind of like the Peace Corps for lawyers. We can help people who are in need of help while supporting and defending the Constitution (of the United States).”
While also said being a Public Defender is a great way to gain a lot of trial experience quickly. Attorneys who began their careers as Public Defenders, then moved to civil law firms, agreed with both the public service and training advantages.
“Being a Public Defender was my first job as an attorney,” said Bob Link of Pajcic & Pajcic after seven years of practice in Public Defenders’ offices in Miami and Jacksonville. “What attracted me to it was the idea of being able to stand up for the underdog and protecting people’s rights – being able to make the 6th Amendment a reality. You measure a society by how well it protects its weakest members and that’s what Public Defenders do.
“It has also helped me a lot in private practice. You have to learn how to try cases and know the Rules of evidence inside and out. (The Public Defenders Office) is also the best place to learn the art of cross-examination. At one point, I tried more than 40 felony jury trials in three-and-a-half years. Many attorneys, especially those in civil practice, never get that experience.”
Tom Duffy’s path to an office at Terrell Hogan also began with five years as an Assistant Public Defender. The graduate of Notre Dame and George Washington law School said when he began his legal education he had no intention of being a Public Defender.
“I thought I’d end up in government regulation or anti-trust law, but by my third year in Law School I was working for minimum wage as an investigator and I decided the first Public Defender’s Office that interviewed me was getting me.”
He also said his experience in criminal defense has been an asset for his career in civil practice.
“Being a Public defender teaches you to think in a different fashion, especially when it comes to evidence. In a civil case, you think everything is coming in. A Public Defender begins a case thinking nothing is coming in.
“I would tell anyone who is in Law School and wondering what to do that there is no better training to be a litigator than being a prosecutor or a Public Defender,” said Duff.
One of White’s challenges as a Public Defender is recruiting talent when the entry-level salary is lower than other areas of practice.
According to Lynn McDowell, associate professor and director of Clinical Programs at Florida Coastal School of Law, a student could be as much as $100,000 in debt at graduation if they borrowed money for living expenses as well as their education.
She also said six to eight FCSL students intern in the Public Defenders Office each semester and several students in each class aspire to be Public Defenders or prosecutors when they graduate.
“Those salaries are not high and it can put some students in a quandary over whether they should follow their heart or take a job that will pay off their student loans,” said McDowell.
White pointed out every Executive Branch agency of State government pays more than the Public Defender and that can create a challenge in terms of recruiting new assistants.
“Sometimes it’s frustrating, especially in these budget times, but this office has always been successful in attracting talented attorneys. You’re not going to pay off your student loans the first year, but you’ll have the opportunity to save someone’s life or save years of someone’s life.
“There’s great satisfaction in getting a verdict of ‘not guilty’ but even when you’ve been able to point out something wrong with a case and the person goes out for a misdemeanor instead of a felony or a lower felony instead of a higher felony, you’ve saved that person years in prison, there is a great satisfaction in that,” he said.