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As caseloads increase, number of attorneys for public defenders, prosecutors decreases
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Northeastern Judicial Circuit Public Defender Brad Morris and his team are facing increasing caseloads Thursday, April 14, 2022, at their downtown Gainesville offices. With the courts picking back up after the COVID-19 shutdown, the office has fewer attorneys than needed. - photo by Scott Rogers

Quitting a job sometimes means cleaning out your cubicle, deciding who will inherit your good stapler and having a — hopefully — bittersweet goodbye with co-workers, who may come bearing a card and sheet cake. 

But for attorney Brett Willis, leaving the Hall County Public Defender’s Office meant he must also say goodbye to 157 clients who will now become part of other attorneys’ caseloads.

“Most public defenders, I think, feel some sense of loyalty to their clients, and so it’s hard to leave a public defender job,” Willis said. “… It’s not really fair to anybody.”

Brad Morris, the Northeastern Judicial Circuit Public Defender, said he is authorized for 19 total positions and is down seven attorneys. The circuit covers both Hall and Dawson counties.

Morris said they have had “losses in our office that were difficult to deal with,” coupled with the turbulence of trying cases during COVID and other economic influences.

As the COVID-19 pandemic began to shut down courts, the public defender’s office in Hall County had 1,346 cases and 11 attorneys between five Superior Court courtrooms in April 2020, meaning 122 cases per attorney.

Now, the Hall office has 1,489 cases and seven attorneys for Superior Court, which is roughly 213 cases per attorney.

Willis, who worked at the office for 17 years and represented more than 2,500 defendants, left the office and hung up his own shingle on Main Street roughly a month ago.

Another experienced attorney, David Hoffer, died June 13, a week before he was set to represent Hector Garcia-Solis at trial in the fatal shooting of Hall County Sheriff’s Office Deputy Blane Dixon.

Attorney Matt Leipold was selected last month to take up the fourth Juvenile Court judgeship, taking on some Superior Court civil matters in the immediate future.

According to court administration, Chief Magistrate Court Judge Margaret Gregory plans to appoint Senior Assistant Public Defender Andy Maddox to a part-time position with Magistrate Court beginning in May.

Willis said he feels the attrition is being felt across the state.

“Talking with other defenders in other offices and hearing what’s going on in their offices, it’s the same thing,” he said.

When speculating on the difficulty hiring attorneys, Morris said he feels there seems to be less interest among the attorney pool in public service. It’s no secret that public defenders make considerably less than what they could make in private practice.

At a time marked by inflation, Morris said there’s also “lots more litigation,” meaning law firms are hiring at a higher rate than in the past.

Running the office, which must defend clients facing the possibility of life in prison, requires balance, Morris said.

He said he tries to have a stable with experienced lawyers, mid-level people and attorneys starting fresh.

Willis said he feels his former clients are in good hands.

“There are fantastic trial lawyers at that office that are as good or better than any you can buy,” Willis said. “That’s the truth. That’s still the truth.”

Morris said he believed they were in a state of renewal with fewer mid-level and experienced attorneys, and four of his attorneys were recently admitted to the bar.

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Assistant Public Defender Chloe I. Owens, right, and Brenda Aguirre consult Thursday, April 14, 2022, inside the Public Defender's Office in downtown Gainesville. With the courts picking back up after the COVID-19 shutdown, the office finds itself with fewer attorneys than needed. - photo by Scott Rogers

“Law school is really a theoretical, Socratic-type of training exercise,” Morris said. “… You don’t really have much hands-on experience.”

There also has to be a balance between the public defenders and the prosecutors, Morris said.

“When you have one area where you have an imbalance, then you end up getting potentially injustices,” Morris said.

Northeastern Judicial Circuit District Attorney Lee Darragh said he is also facing a shortage with four open attorney positions, though he hopes two more will join his staff by the end of the summer. Including himself, Darragh has 19 attorneys.

He estimated that attorneys in his office have at least 150% of the caseload they had compared to pre-COVID times.

In the past, Darragh said a job ad with his office would attract roughly 15 resumes. Half of those resumes would lead to interviews, and one would get the job.

“Now, the resumes are few and far between,” Darragh said.

While his office continues to look for experienced people, Darragh said he is also looking more closely at recent law school graduates.

Both Darragh’s and Morris’ offices have borrowed attorneys between their Hall and Dawson offices, and both are preparing for the courts pressing on without the COVID-19 restrictions that shut down trials and grand juries for more than a year.

“The full blast probably hasn’t hit yet because of the reservoir of cases,” Morris said.

When they get to full staff, Darragh said he feels they may be able to cut down the number of cases that are awaiting an indictment or a formal accusation.

Darragh himself has been in court several days a month more than when his office was at its full force, taking probable cause hearings in Magistrate Court.

“I’d rather my attorneys be working on their caseloads than spending their time in Magistrate Court when I can readily cover from time to time myself,” Darragh said.

In 2021, there were 45 jury trials in Hall County. A typical year would usually see 50-75 trials.

Darragh said he would not be surprised to see the same number of trials or more this year as there were last year.