Category Archives: county systems

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.

Big changes coming to Seattle indigent defense

Public defenders in King County, WA, are in for some changes this fall when county officials will put a new indigent defense system before voters. From Real Change News:

More than 200 public defense attorneys handle about 25,000 cases in King County each year, serving anyone who does not have enough money to pay for an attorney.

Four independent nonprofits that contract with King County employ these public defense attorneys.

In November, voters will decide whether the attorneys should instead work for a single public defender selected by the King County Executive from a pool of candidates nominated by a public defense advisory board. The defender would work for a four-year term and answer to the executive.

The system had to change one way or another. A 2011 court decision and subsequent settlement found that King County owes retirement benefits to current and past employees. The public defenders had been doing county-funded public defense work without receiving the same benefits as other county employees because they worked for independent nonprofits.

The settlement in the case established that the public defenders are employees of King County.

Read the full story for a few more details on the proposed changes to a system which the story alleges “is known throughout the nation for being unique.”

Muskegon County, MI, creating new public defender system

Muskegon County, Michigan, has decided to create a new county public defender office. According to the Muskegon Legal Times:

The newly created Muskegon County Department will be similar to the prosecutor’s department, and will somewhat mirror that office’s set-up. The public defender will be one of the department heads under Hammersley. The new department will consist of a staff of 16 — the County Public Defender (1), Assistant Public Defender III (2), Assistant Public Defender II (2), Assistant Public Defender I (8), Court Services Clerk (2), and Paralegal (1).

The move is apparently an attempt to get ahead of expected statewide reforms; the state has been studying its indigent defense systems for some time now, largely in response to an ongoing ACLU lawsuit charging the state has failed to provide adequate indigent defense services.