Local bar association proposes added independence for Monroe County NY public defender

BY Jon Mosher on Thursday, May 12, 2011 at 12:01 PM

On May 9, 2011, the Rochester Democrat and Chronicle reported that the Monroe County Bar Association (Rochester, NY) presented the County Legislature with a set of recommendations to change the method by which the county’s public defender is selected.  Currently, the public defender is selected by direct appointment of the county legislature.  The proposal goes far toward compliance with national standards for the selection of the chief public defender.

After a year of studying national standards, including the ABA Ten Principles, the Monroe County Bar Association (MCBA) Public Defender Task Force concluded in its report to the county legislature that “Public Defenders should be selected on the basis of merit and without regard to political party affiliations or contributions.”  In attempting to insulate the selection process from political influence, the Task Force recommends establishing a “merit selection panel” to vet candidates and provide a list of selections to the county legislature for their final selection.  As the Rochester Business Journal noted, the bar association’s efforts come “some three years after the county bar and community activists clashed with the county Legislature over what critics then said appeared to be a politically driven process . . . .”  

The MCBA Task Force’s proposal does not, of course, fully meet the requirements of ABA Principle 1. A limited merit selection panel is not the standing, independent oversight commission required for each public defense delivery system under national standards.  But it is a bold step in the right direction.  And the composition of the panel’s membership, though not ideal, demonstrates the depth to which the Task Force toiled with foundational standards on independence in a way that “blends ‘best practices’ and our community’s history.”  

The Monroe County Bar Association has stepped in to fill the void created because the state of New York has chosen to pass on to its counties the constitutional obligation to fund and administer the right to counsel.  What MCBA has endeavored to accomplish here is significant, and the members of the Public Defender Task Force it created in 2010 to study this issue should be commended for their work.  However, it is but one drop in the bucket when you consider that there are 62 counties in New York state – the majority of which fail to meet the ABA Ten Principles.

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