A Florida drifter's legacy still resonates in the Somerset County Public Defender's Office along North Kimberly Avenue in Somerset.
In the 1963 landmark case Gideon v. Wainwright, the U.S. Supreme Court's decision that a defendant who could not hire an attorney was nonetheless entitled to one began a radical alteration of the criminal justice system and expanded the role of the public defender.
The local office's staff were not part of the justice system when Clarence Gideon's decision was handed down 50 years ago this week. Yet the rules and processes that evolved from that decision are so much a part of American jurisprudence that it is difficult to consider what it was like for defendants prior to that landmark decision, according to several staff members.
"We pick up the system as it is when we get into it," said Director William Carroll, who began working in the office about 30 years ago.
The major change he has noticed since he began is "the intense increase in the caseloads," he said.
When the office's administrator and investigator, John Harvey, began working there in the early 1990s, three part-time attorneys and the director handled about 300 cases per year. Last year the same office and the same number of attorneys handled 1,092 new criminal cases. That number does not include parole revocations and extraditions, Harvey said.
"I blame a lot of the increase in caseloads on drugs," Harvey said.
He said that 75 percent of the cases in the office involve people facing drug charges or other types of crime such as theft and access device fraud in which property or money can exchanged for drugs.
To handle the volume one must be good at prioritizing, he said. Looking down at his desk covered with papers, folders and scribbled lists, Harvey said: "You schedule for tomorrow and deal with today."
"You have to devote attention to immediate problems," he said. "The practice of law like this is practice within a crisis atmosphere."
The public defender's office is financed through the county. Besides the obvious cost for the staff and office, there are the more unusual costs such as obtaining an expert witness, he said.
"Within the limits of the county budget, the commissioners are supportive of the office," Carroll said.
The public defender's office handles about 60 percent of the total caseload in the county courts.
During the February call of the criminal trial list, for example, public defenders represented 175 defendants. Private attorneys handled 127 cases, Harvey said. There are five calls for criminal defendants annually.
Public defendants are also the subject of several misconceptions.
"There is the perception that public defenders are not real attorneys who are somehow doing something bad," Carroll said. "In reality the public defenders have more experience in the courtroom than private attorneys."
Harvey mentioned a defendant at the Somerset County Jail who refused to be represented by a public defender and hired a private attorney only to later discover that his attorney was the same person who would have represented him through the office.
Carroll said the office defends ordinary people, all of whom deserve knowledgeable and competent representation.
A defendant's finances are the prerequisite to obtaining a public defender. The income limits for the public defender's office, effective May 1, 2001, range from $15,448 for a single individual to $53,003 for a household of eight.
"With the amount of time necessary to do a fair and competent job for everybody versus the time available to do so, we do a tremendous job within the time we have to do it," Carroll said.
It is about "whether you have done your best to offer fair and competent advocacy for your clients," Carroll said. "The key point is our goal is to see that the (constitutional) rights of defendants are protected."
If someone meets the income requirements but has a conflict of interest with someone in the public defender's office, President Judge John M. Cascio will appoint one of the county's contracted conflict counsels: William Seger, Joseph Policicchio, Tiffany Stanley or Sara Huston.
If there is a conflict with the conflict counsels, the judge will try to appoint a local member of the bar, but he will go outside the county if necessary, Cascio said.
Besides Carroll and Harvey, the public defender's office staff includes attorneys Michael Kuhn, Tara Yutzy Collier and Steven Miller. Attorney Robert Morocco is special assistant public defender for state parole matters because of the two state prisons in Somerset County. He is retiring at the end of the month.
All of the attorneys in the office work part time, including the director. Clerks Sandra Weigle and Kimberly McKinney take care of the day-to-day duties in the office.
Within the criminal justice system in Somerset County, only the district attorney and one assistant district attorney are full time, Carroll said.
On June 3, 1961, someone burglarized a Panama City, Fla., pool hall and beer joint, making off with a pocketful of change and a few bottles of beer and soda. A man who lived nearby told police he had seen Clarence Earl Gideon, a drifter, leave the pool hall and catch a cab while carrying a wine bottle. The man said Gideon's pockets were bulging as if filled with coins. Gideon was arrested in a bar a short time later.
Under the Florida laws at the time, the only time the court could appoint counsel to represent a defendant who could not otherwise afford an attorney was when that person was charged with a capital offense. Charged with breaking and entering with intent to commit petty larceny, Gideon was forced to defend himself at trial. On Aug. 4, 1961, he was convicted. He was sentenced to five years in prison.
From his jail cell Gideon wrote the U.S. Supreme Court claiming his constitutional right to counsel had been violated. The justices agreed to take the case.
The Supreme Court unanimously ruled in Gideon's favor March 18, 1963, declaring that a right to legal counsel under the Sixth Amendment applied to states' criminal cases.
Gideon was granted a second trial and appointed a public defender. He was acquitted.