Criminal Justice

Attacking the Defense

Elected public defenders

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Civil libertarians often have misgivings about electing judges and prosecutors, since voters tend to be more enthusiastic about putting lots of people in jail than they are about protecting due process. But the risks associated with electing public defenders, as a handful of U.S. jurisdictions do, may be even greater.

In one Florida race for chief public defender last November, Republican Angela Corey defeated the 20-year incumbent, Democrat Jay Plotkin. Corey ran on a tough-on-crime platform, an unusual stance for someone in charge of representing accused criminals who can't afford lawyers. Her first act was to fire all 400 of her office's employees, then invite them to reapply for their jobs.

In another Florida race, Republican Matt Shirk defeated 30-year incumbent Bill White with backing from the local chapter of the Fraternal Order of Police. During his campaign he promised not to oppose cuts in funding for the office he was seeking and to squeeze as much money as possible out of indigent defendants (he suggested billing acquitted defendants once they find employment). Shirk has never defended a homicide case.

In November, before even taking office, Shirk sent White an email instructing him to fire 10 senior attorneys and three longtime administrators before leaving office. The message misspelled several of the dismissed employees' names.

Some of the attorneys and administrators Shirk fired worked on the high-profile case of Brendan Butler, a 16-year-old wrongly accused of robbing and murdering an elderly tourist in 2000. The Butler case was a major embarrassment for the Jacksonville Sheriff 's Office, which was accused in trial testimony of beating Butler's confession out of him. The sheriff 's office eventually apologized and reopened its investigation into the murder.

According to Pat McGuiness, one of the fired public defenders who worked on the Butler case, Shirk axed the office's most skilled and experienced attorneys in retaliation for their work to win Butler's freedom. McGuiness claims the firings were a favor to the police in exchange for their support during the campaign. At press time, Shirk had yet to respond to those allegations.