By Gary Blankenship
The good news for five lawyers in Florida is they have been chosen by Gov. Charlie Crist as the first five criminal conflict and civil regional counsels.
The bad news is they are now expected to nearly instantaneously create the new agencies — which will take over from private attorneys most of the conflict representation for public defender offices and representing parents in dependency cases.
Or is it bad news?
“How often do you get to try to build a state entity from the ground up?” said Jeffrey Lewis, who will head the regional office that will handle cases in the geographic area covered by the First District Court of Appeal. “It can be daunting, or it can be a real positive experience. I looked at it as the opportunity of a lifetime. It’s really been an exhilarating experience so far.”
Or as Jeffrey Deen, who will oversee the regional counsel office for the Fifth DCA area, put it: “It’s something that appealed to me because of the nature of starting something new out of the air.”
Other regional counsels named by Crist on August 21 are Jackson Flyte of Winter Haven, who will head the office covering the Second DCA; Joseph George of Miami, who will head the office covering the Third DCA; and Philip Massa of West Palm Beach, who will head the office covering the Fourth DCA.
“The Office of Criminal Conflict and Civil Regional Counsel provides important legal representations to some of Florida’s most vulnerable,” said Gov. Crist in making the appointments. “I am grateful to these dedicated public servants for accepting this call to serve.”
In interviews with the News, the new counsels said they were working hard to set up their offices, but agreed that wouldn’t happen by October 1, the date specified in state law. They noted that law called for the regional counsel to be named on July 1, while that didn’t actually happen until August 21, which left them the impossible task of setting up offices in about six weeks.
Although they can’t meet the October 1 deadline, the regional counsels said they hope to be operating shortly after that date. In the meantime, they’re working as fast as possible.
“The challenge of building government is you jump in so fast, you risk criticism for doing a halfway job,” George said. “I want to avoid that.”
Lewis had a slightly different way of looking at it: “First you crawl, then you walk, and then you run. Right now, I’m in the crawl mode,” adding he expects soon to be walking and then running to get the offices set up.
Interviewed in late August and early September, the regional counsels said they had met with Director Virginia Montanero of the Justice Administrative Commission (which will provide financial services for their offices) and other state officials to learn the ins and outs of state government. They were also meeting with the public defenders and chief circuit judges in their respective districts to discuss workloads and office operations, and with various county officials responsible for providing office space and other support services. And they were beginning interviews to fill key positions in their offices, particularly office administrators.
They were also closing down their private practices or clearing out their desks from their previous government lawyer jobs. (Flyte, Dean, and George had private practices with either previous government experience or experience handling appointment to state and federal criminal cases, while Massa was an assistant state attorney and Lewis an assistant public defender.)
Their new task can be daunting.
Lewis, for the First DCA, must provide conflict counsel for public defender criminal cases and dependency counsel in civil cases over a 32-county area covering six circuits. He will start with a $7.5 million budget and 108 positions. At the moment, he foresees the need to open at least one branch office in each circuit.
Lewis was unsure of his expected caseload, except that it will likely be thousands of cases.
Fourth DCA conflict counsel Massa estimates his caseload will be between 7,000 and 10,000 cases annually, counting dependency and criminal conflict cases. He expects to have about 40 attorneys and a support staff of 23, with a budget of around $5.9 million.
He’s looking at having offices in Broward and Palm Beach counties, and likely one in Stuart or Ft. Pierce to handle cases from the 19th Circuit.
Massa is ready for the task.
“I think this is one of the most important positions that has come on the landscape in decades,” he said. “I think it’s an extremely important position. It’s going to benefit the people of the state of Florida, and it’s going to benefit the clients.”
Deen will be covering four circuits as the Fifth DCA regional conflict counsel. He will have 67 employees and expects 40 to 45 will be attorneys. His budget is around $5 million, and he was still studying projected caseload numbers.
“My mission is to represent indigent clients effectively and do that well,” he said among the flurry of work in closing down his private practice and setting up his new public office.
“It’s important for me to pay attention to what the real job is, and the real job is representing people who need lawyers.”
George, the Third DCA regional conflict counsel, laughingly said the first part of his job was wading through about 50 pounds of paperwork. He expects to have a budget of around $4 million and a staff of 40 to 45 people, with more than half being attorneys. He anticipates having around 5,000 criminal cases annually, plus another 1,000 dependency cases.
The offices were created as a way to save the state money over hiring private attorneys to take the dependency cases and the public defender conflict cases. Estimates are the new offices will handle about 80 percent of the current criminal conflict cases (private attorneys will still be needed in cases with three or more defendants).
Last year, private conflict counsel for just the public defender conflict cases cost the state more than $90 million. Legislators hope the new offices can handle most of those conflicts, plus dependency, for around $50 million annually. (The budgets for the 2007-08 fiscal year are pro rated, since the offices didn’t start until well into the budget year.)
Critics of the plan say the state hasn’t allocated enough money or personnel to replace the private counsel, and that the quality of representation may suffer under the new, untried system.
The regional conflict counsels are aware of those reservations.
“It is rather like a new baby being born. You have to give it a chance to work,” George said. “I have to keep my focus on the client: Doing everything I can for the client with the resources I have.
“I want to maintain the highest level of due process services available. We’re just doing it in a little different way. Instead of automatically sending them to a private lawyer . . . they’re sending them to my office, and we’ll provide a government lawyer. I’m hopeful people will keep an open mind and give it a chance to work. We can make it work.”
Said Deen: “I came into this with my eyes wide open. If I didn’t think I could solve these problems, I shouldn’t have taken the job.”
The key initially, Deen said, will be matching attorneys with the workloads in the various offices around his district.
“I’m concerned with the mix and making sure I use every person and every dollar to the max,” Deen added. “If we do that, we’ll be OK.”
Lewis said there will be many problems to overcome, but he’s confident the new system can work. He noted that the regional conflict counsels will be dealing with several different clerks’ offices, which will have different computer systems providing information to the counsels.
After an initial review of his budget, Lewis said he’s somewhat concerned that there’s no separate line item for handling appeals based on the apparent assumption that attorneys handling trials would also handle resulting appeals. Lewis said he’d rather have some attorneys doing only appeals.
He also noted that the pay scales, modeled on existing state attorney and public defender budgets, don’t appear to allow enough for hiring experienced attorneys to handle capital cases. The Florida Supreme Court requires special qualifications for lawyers handling death cases.
But Lewis said those problems can be addressed and are all part of the challenge of setting up the new conflict system.
“There’s a Chinese proverb: ‘The difference between the possible and the impossible is the measure of our will to succeed,’” he said. “I’m fully committed to making this work.”
(Note: Jackson Flyte, the regional conflict counsel for the Second DCA, could not be reached in time for this article.)
Conflict counsels to fill key positions
With orientation to state government and meetings with public defenders and chief judges well underway, Florida’s new criminal conflict and civil regional counsels are turning their attention to hiring staff.
Most say it still will be a while before they begin hiring most of their staff, but they are now looking for at least key personnel.
Here’s a list of the people each regional conflict counsel said he is now looking for. Contact information is provided if you are interested in applying:
• Jeffrey Lewis, who is running the conflict office that covers the geographical area of the First District Court of Appeal, said he is looking for an office administrator, who in turn will assist in setting up the office and hiring other employees. His priority is for someone who is familiar with how state attorney or public defender offices operate, and with the state’s purchasing procedures. Lewis can be reached at (850) 728-7130 or via e-mail at jeffreylewis_rc1.jac.state.fl.us
• Joseph George, of the Third DCA regional office, is looking for an office administrator and/or human resources director to help him with the hiring of other employees and in setting up his offices. He can be reached at (305) 670-6706.
• Philip Massa, who is running the Fourth DCA regional office, is ready to take applications from anyone interested in working for his office as an attorney or in a support staff position. Applications can be sent to Philip J. Massa, Criminal Conflict and Civil Regional Counsel, Fourth Region, P.O. Box 1654, Tallahassee 32302.
• Jeffrey Deen, of the Fifth DCA regional office, is looking for support staff as well as dependency and criminal attorneys. He particularly hopes to find attorneys from each area of his region to handle the cases from that area. Deen can be contacted at 1759 W. Broadway St., Suite 3, Oviedo 32765, or by fax at (407) 971-6777.
(Second DCA regional counsel Jackson Flyte could not be reached in time for this article.)