FL: Matt Shirk and the controversy in Jacksonville

Cross-posted from ‘a public defender’:

As I alluded to in my last post, Jacksonville, FL, has an ethical controversy brewing. It involves the elected public defender Matt Shirk and some very questionable hiring decisions he’s made1.

Matt Shirk was covered here in 2008, when he defeated longtime public defender Bill White in an election for the job of Public Defender. Back then I lamented the problems with the position of public defender being an elected one. Shirk’s platform promised no changes to the way things were done, which was kept by him until the day he started when he made huge changes by firing all the most experienced attorneys2. He was also endorsed by the Fraternal Order of Police and promised not to raise questions about the integrity of their work.

This recent article, however, provides more troubling information about Shirk and his allegiances:

Before his election, Shirk was a relatively unknown in political and legal circles. But he had a strong backing from the local Republican party, the support of Sheriff John Rutherford and friend State Attorney Angela Corey.

Angela Corey, you remember, is the stalwart whose office prosecuted Zimmerman. But there’s more:

Shirk campaign’s website noted that he’d worked “under the direct tutelage of Angela Corey.” Many regarded Shirk as her protégé. (How close were they? After he was elected, Shirk spokesperson Ron Mallett referred First Coast News’ call for comment to Corey’s office.)

Shortly after taking office, Shirk drew criticism for firing the Public Defender’s most seasoned lawyers and many of those qualified to try death penalty cases. Shirk himself has never tried a death-penalty case or even a murder case.

When he was assigned as counsel for 12-year-old murder defendant Cristian Fernandez, a group of high profile criminal defense attorneys filed a motion to have him removed. Shirk eventually agreed step down as Fernandez’s attorney.

The evidence neatly sums up the fact that Shirk was elected purely because of his political leanings, his overtures to the police department and his close ties to the establishment, when, in fact, all three of those things should expressly disqualify him from holding the position of a supervisory public defender. His closeness to the the State’s Attorney’s office and the police department underline his extreme unsuitability to lead an army of attorneys whose job it is to undermine and confront those two establishments.

Not to mention him being utterly unqualified to be a regular public defender employee representing people accused of serious crimes.

But none of this matters to voters as he has apparently just started a second term. A man with no qualifications, with strong ties to the very people who are trying to put his clients in jail and a man with, shall we say, questionable judgment:

It was a turbulent month in Public Defender Matt Shirk’s office, beginning with the May hiring of a young woman Shirk sought out after seeing her photo on social media and ending with Shirk’s chief of staff asking a former investigator to help him avoid following the public records law.

I guess the flirting is whatever, but what really troubles me is the last bit: the cover-up that includes changing documentation and deleting access records:

We made public records requests July 22 seeking out details of the resignation of lead investigator Alton Kelly. At the time, we were told, there was no resignation letter. It was not until the Florida Times-Union was tipped off about a voice mail that we learned the Public Defender’s Office was not telling us the truth.

Ron Mallett, who is the chief of staff for Matt Shirk, left this message for Alton Kelly after our request:  “Hey buddy, it’s Ron. We’ve had a public information request regarding your resignation from Action News. Would you mind if we actually typed up a resignation letter so we don’t have to use the email, and make it, uh, more official? Anyway, if you want to give me a call back or shoot me a text and let me know what you think.” That voice mail references an email dated July 15, seven days before our initial request.

Here is a man, tasked with protecting the core Constitutional individual rights of all citizens, yet he has no experience, no training and no desire to do the job. Yet he’s in a position to affect the lives of so many and seemingly has only done so in a negative way.

Requiring elections for what should be independent positions like the public defender is a recipe for disaster. It becomes a political yo-yo, swinging back and forth between the favored child of whatever party happens to have a stronghold on that district3.

The lives of those these decisions affect are disregarded, because it is more important to have that job, than to do the job, apparently.

  1. The questionable firing decisions were made long ago.
  2. Among those he fired were Pat McGuiness and Ann Finnel, both of whom represented Brenton Butler in an infamous murder case in 2000, that resulted in Butler’s acquittal. Both McGuiness and Finnel were simultaneously featured in an Oscar winning documentary about Butler’s case.
  3. If you want to know how your state handles selection of public defenders and the delivery of indigent defense services, go here.

Public defender crisis deserves our attention

From the Minneapolis Star Tribune:

Fifty years after the Supreme Court’s landmark case, Gideon vs. Wainwright, we are a country — and a state — in a crisis that most of us, Wahl notwithstanding, know or care little about.  We should.

“We are how we treat the folks on the edge of society,” said 64-year-old Dan O’Brien, a respected lawyer preparing to retire after 33 years in the Hennepin County public defender office.

“The reason we are different from a lynch mob is that we have a system that entitles people to a fair trial and counsel,” O’Brien said. “Society is much better off if we can commit ourselves to making sure that everyone’s dignity is defended.”

This is why, 50 years ago, the Supreme Court ruled the way it did. “The court recognized that we cannot have equal justice unless poor people have the same kind of lawyers that you or I would pay for,” Rapping said.

“What the Supreme Court didn’t do is clearly outline what that meant,” he continued. “States have gotten the message that they need to give poor people a lawyer, but they don’t have to invest much in those lawyers.”

Although the American Bar Association’s standard for caseloads is 150 felonies per year per lawyer, public defenders often have three or four times that number, Rapping said.

Read the entire article.

TX: Sequestration may mean layoffs in El Paso

From The El Paso Times:

The Albert Armendariz Sr. Federal Courthouse in El Paso — among the busiest in Texas because of the number of immigration and drug cases — may be forced to close two days a month if the federal government continues to trim budgets in the next fiscal year, attorneys in El Paso said.

The government’s sequestration has affected civil and criminal trials, public defenders and attorneys, but continuing budget cuts in the face of immigration reform could cut courthouse jobs and increase criminal caseloads.

Maureen Scott Franco, the federal public defender for the Western District of Texas, which includes El Paso, said cuts to her office may lead to judges appointing more expensive Criminal Justice Act, or CJA, attorneys, who are usually attorneys in private practice who also make themselves available for federal appointments to cases.

“Our program throughout the U.S. is threatened to its very core if we do not get funding relief in Fiscal Year 2014. The cuts to my budget will result in fewer employees in the El Paso office and fewer cases we could handle.” Franco said the cost shifting from federal public defenders to appointed attorneys will end up costing the U.S. taxpayers “much more money.”

Because of the cuts, the Federal Public Defender’s Office has had to institute 12 furlough days, resulting in a 10 percent pay cut, and has cut funding available for CJA attorneys.

The effects of sequestration have also trickled down to legal nonprofit organizations such as Texas RioGrande Legal Aid, which recently had to lay off six employees, or one-fourth of its total staff, and has had to reduce work hours from 40 hours a week to 35 hours a week.

Read the entire piece.

Defenders furloughed, but not prosecutors

From the Washington Post:

Federal budget cuts known as sequestration are taking a toll on lawyers representing those too poor to hire their own counsel. That means, of course, that it is ultimately the needy defendants and justice itself that are threatened.

Federal defenders faced furloughs of up to 20 days, but it varied among the 81 local offices and many had fewer unpaid days. Starting next month, pay for the private lawyers, known as “panel attorneys,” will drop from $125 an hour to $110. In capital cases, the fee will fall from $178 to $163. In addition, four weeks of their pay due in fiscal 2014 will be pushed into 2015.

No one weeps for those earning $110 an hour when so many people remain out of work. But many lawyers can make much more from well-heeled clients. More importantly, the pay cuts and the furloughs can hurt the administration of justice and that should insult everyone’s notion of fair play. Federal prosecutors have not been furloughed.

Read the entire article.

FL PD’s chief sleuth wins prestigious state award for work

From the SunSentinel:

The chief investigator for the Broward County Public Defender’s Office has received a prestigious state award for his innovative work on behalf of criminal defendants who can’t afford to hire a lawyer.

The Florida Public Defender Association presented Al Smith with the Investigator of the Year award last week during a state conference in Palm Beach County.

Smith, 63, a retired Fort Lauderdale police officer and Vietnam War veteran, was recognized for his use of police technology to help assistant public defenders find evidence that helped them represent, and even clear, their clients of crimes and uncover alleged misconduct by officers.

Read the entire story.