Commentary: We are justice seekers and zealous advocates

New chair of Criminal Law Committee outlines goals.

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  • | 5:10 a.m. January 3, 2019
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Public Defender Charlie Cofer and State Attorney Melissa Nelson.
Public Defender Charlie Cofer and State Attorney Melissa Nelson.
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Eugene B. Nichols
Eugene B. Nichols

By Eugene B. Nichols, JBA Criminal Law Committee chair

In the late summer of 1998, I was a recent graduate of law school and a survivor of the Florida Bar exam. I found myself sitting in the office of Bill White, chief assistant public defender, interviewing for my first job.

He fired question after question, the majority of which I was as prepared for as I could be. We talked about my internship at the State Attorney’s Office, my desire to switch sides and defend people accused of crimes, the death penalty, my father and uncle (both prominent Jacksonville lawyers) and Florida Gator football, circa 1966.

After discussing Steve Spurrier’s winning drive, Bill hit me with a question I will never forget: “What are the ethical requirements of a state attorney and a public defender?”

I started to sweat. While I figured I could muddle through the response, I knew I was in trouble and I knew my answer was not going to be what he was looking for.

While I have no memory of my answer, to this day I remember Bill’s:  “A public defender’s obligation is to zealously advocate for his or her client. A state attorney’s obligation is to seek justice.”

That precise summary of the criminal practice has stuck with me all of these years. This is who we are and what we do every day.

 I have the pleasure of serving the Jacksonville Bar Association as the chair of the Criminal Law Committee. I have to admit, after serving as the treasurer of President Katie Dearing’s judicial campaign, I thought I was finished doing what she asked, at least until she started wearing her robe.

However, it was my honor to accept this new role. Now the question becomes: What can I do to help grow this committee after the great work of my predecessors?

Over the past few months, I have opened a dialogue with many of my contemporaries all over the state to learn how their criminal law committees work, what they accomplish and how they differ from their local chapter of the Florida Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers.

What I have learned from these conversations is what I expected. The state association is fairly well attended by the defense Bar, but few also are members of the local voluntary Bar association.

Further, the State Attorney’s Office is rarely involved at the local Bar level and in some cities, not at all.

Henry Ford said “If you always do what you’ve always done, you’ll always get what you’ve always got.”

It is time for all criminal practice lawyers in Jacksonville to join the association. It is time for the JBA to work even harder with State Attorney Melissa Nelson and Public Defender Charlie Cofer to make sure each lawyer and their respective offices feels welcomed by the Bar association.

Further, each lawyer must be shown the benefits of joining the association and how it can impact their careers.

These seekers of justice and zealous advocates are the backbone of the criminal Bar. Many are the true future of our law firms, no matter the type of practice they may one day pursue.

It is time for all of us to make sure they know they are a part of the larger whole and help them become members of our organization.

So, as chair of this committee, I am not only extending the challenge to all members, but accepting the challenge to make a change. I will be reaching out to Nelson and Cofer to meet with their staff and persuade them to be more involved with the JBA.

If nothing else, it will give all the real estate lawyers someone they can call when their phone rings at 2 a.m. and they don’t know what to do. I look forward to the challenge and I am honored to be your committee chair.

Eugene B. Nichols is a partner with Nichols and Pina focusing on criminal defense, personal injury and family law.



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