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Several attorneys working for the Miami-Dade Public Defender's Office have filed formal complaints alleging their supervisors pressured them to support the candidacy of long-time incumbent Bennett Brummer over that of a young challenger who until recently worked in the defender's office. One of the attorneys who lodged a complaint believes he was fired because he supports the challenger. Brummer claims the allegations are nothing more than political gamesmanship, but the attorneys who filed them say they are evidence of a larger malaise inside the defender's office.
A lot of hotshot criminal defense attorneys have come out of the Eleventh Judicial Circuit Public Defender's Office over the years. Guys like Roy Black and H.T. Smith learned their trade serving the poor before moving on to South Florida's rich and notorious. As with most chronically strained public defender's offices, the idea seems to be to turn young lawyers loose in the court system and then move them up or out in a few years as they mature and their time becomes more expensive. If well-guided, this crucible of training can produce excellent trial lawyers.
But if there is not adequate guidance, and no consistent system of rewards and penalties to ensure quality representation, overwhelmed attorneys can easily flounder. They become frustrated and are faced with one of three unpalatable options: keep slugging it out in the courts anyway; go into private practice; or stop trying so hard. In each case, poor defendants suffer.
This is the state of affairs that has slowly evolved under Bennett Brummer, Miami-Dade County's elected public defender for the past 28 years -- at least according to a small group of Brummer's assistant public defenders. This group has chosen a fourth option: They've decided to support an effort to defeat their boss at the polls this November.
They are backing 33-year-old Gabriel Martin, who resigned as an assistant public defender last November to run against Brummer. "Lawyers really start getting good at about three years, but we're losing them at two," Martin charges. "There's no accountability. There's no correlation between quality and salaries. Laziness is rampant. We realized we had a choice -- we could either get out of being public defenders in Miami or quit and run someone for the office. Demographically, I was the best choice."
Martin is a Republican challenging the longest-serving Democrat in town, but believes that he can win because he's a Cuban American with a good reputation as a lawyer and has the support of some of the best young assistant public defenders in the office, several of whom are African Americans. The half-dozen attorneys who spoke to New Times (most had been in the office three to five years, with salaries in the midforties) all expressed a deep dissatisfaction. "You see people who go to prison for things they shouldn't go to prison for and it seems like nobody above you cares," laments assistant PD Dave Pettus. "There are [lawyers] not getting the job done and nothing happens to them. People got tired of that."
Brummer, who is 62 years old, has faced a challenge only once, in 1996, from former Miami federal prosecutor William Norris. Brummer trounced the Republican handily, though Norris's criticisms were similar to those being leveled today -- that the public defender's office has become too top-heavy and bureaucratic. Junior attorneys are handling the majority of the caseloads while senior attorneys are making the most money.
"There are eight to ten lawyers at the top who don't handle cases. It's the biggest joke," complains Christian Dunham, who resigned last month to go into private practice. "They come in for an hour and they leave. The people at the bottom are working all the hours. They don't retain the good-quality attorneys, the ones who are hungry and want to fight for their clients. Too many of the lawyers who stay are the lazy ones who like that good, easy government job."
Adds candidate Martin: "The training of new lawyers has basically stopped. Especially in felony, it's trial by fire. You have a lawyer maybe eighteen months out of law school trying cases that are essentially life cases."
Brummer counters that the office has an "extensive, detailed training program," of which he is quite proud. As for the other allegations, he says there's no basis to them. "They have a very poor understanding of the limitations this office operates under," he asserts, referring to his critics. "There's a tremendous workload of 90,000 cases a year with 200 attorneys. People in this office are underpaid across the board."
But the critics are not just a group of chronic gripers whining about their boss. Attorneys outside the public defender's office have similar complaints. Jay L. Levine, a criminal defense attorney who worked under Brummer in the late Seventies but is now supporting Martin, says he's noticed a general decline in the quality of representation from public defenders. "I'm not seeing an appropriate level of advocacy in the courts," he maintains. "It looks to me like indifference. There's a core of public defenders who are good zealous advocates, but I was seeing a general apathy."
From the moment Martin decided to challenge Brummer, however, the public defender's office has been anything but apathetic, according to several complaints filed with the Florida Elections Commission, the state ethics commission, and the Miami-Dade State Attorney's Office.