It's been a good couple of weeks for public defender Brad Morris.
On May 2, Morris, who heads up the office that represents poor criminal defendants in Hall and Dawson County, was unanimously reappointed to a four-year term, ending in 2012.
A week later, the career criminal defense attorney received the local bar association's top honor, named after the judge for whom he served as a clerk when he came to Gainesville in 1980.
"I appreciate the support I've always had," Morris said after receiving the Judge A.R. Kenyon award at Friday's Law Day luncheon held by the Gainesville-Northeastern Circuit Bar Association. "Everybody in this bar has always shown me a lot of respect, a lot of warmth and friendship."
Morris is widely respected for his skill and acumen as a trial lawyer, but hasn't been without his detractors. In 2006, he weathered a challenge to his office spearheaded by state Rep. James Mills that pitted the lawmaker and others who criticized the management of the office against some of Morris' supporters in the bar association, including Superior Court Judge Kathlene Gosselin.
After two legislative sessions passed without significant changes to the manner in which the circuit's chief public defender is appointed, a selection committee made up of members chosen by the governor, leaders of the general assembly, the chief justice of the state supreme court and local superior court judges voted unanimously to re-appoint Morris earlier this month.
Morris oversees an office of 13 attorneys and 15 support staff that handled 3,000 felony cases last year.
Gainesville attorney Wyc Orr, who presented the award, offered words of praise for Morris.
"‘Brad is the fiercest believer in the right to counsel that I know,'" Orr said, quoting a speech written by Gainesville attorney Abb Hayes. "He does not see the defense of indigent persons as a burden. Instead, he embraces it as a calling."
Morris, who often cites the constitutional rights of indigent people accused of crimes, called the constitution a "beautiful document ... and to have an opportunity to defend that document seemed like a wonderful opportunity."
"Luckily, what I've always done, nobody much wants to do, which is indigent defense," Morris said. "And I've always felt privileged to do it."
Morris praised his staff and thanked Hall County's elected commissioners for their support of his office. Morris noted that he initially opposed the concept of a local public defender office and said making the adjustment as an appointed official heading it up had its challenges.
"This idea of being a politician didn't come too naturally to me because most of my life I've been the opposite," he said.
Also at Friday's luncheon, the Liberty Bell award for nonlawyers who have made a significant contribution to the local judiciary went to Carol Campbell, a former deputy director of the Department of Family and Children Services who has served as a legal advocate for Hall County's Gateway House domestic violence center since 1997. Campbell assisted 190 victims of domestic violence in obtaining temporary protective orders last year.
"This community and this court system is fortunate to have her doing this important work," said Senior Superior Court Judge John Girardeau, who presented Campbell with the award. "What she does requires much patience, even temperament, good judgement and strong will. Carol possesses all of these qualities and exhibits them daily."
Friday's keynote speaker, former Gainesville law partner and eight-term Republican U.S. Rep. Nathan Deal, used the occasion to speak to this year's Law Day theme, "the rule of law."
Deal criticized the trend toward mandatory minimum sentences imposed by the state legislature and federal sentencing guidelines enacted by Congress, which he characterized as taking discretion from the hands of judges and undermining the rule of law.
"We've had many federal judges, after having had to contend with that system ... to actually resign their positions, and say, ‘this is not what the law is all about,'" Deal said. "Discretion cannot be removed from the process."
Deal also referenced immigration issues that have been debated locally when he touched on the concept of "situational ethics."
A local-federal law enforcement initiative recently started in Hall County has resulted in the deportation of illegal aliens arrested on minor criminal charges and has drawn criticism from some area attorneys who say it is unfairly indiscriminate and heavy-handed.
"One of the great threats of the rule of law is we are now transposing situational ethics into the law itself," Deal said.
"Unfortunately I believe today, we're engaged in a society that says if we don't think the law is good or is stupid or is dumb, we're not willing to accept the consequences for violating it; we simply wish to be passed and excused for having ignored it."
Deal compared the rationale to a moonshiner who argued with federal agents when they raided his stills.
"It's not whether or not making moonshine is wrong, it's just, ‘Why are you picking on me?' And we have seen that argument played out even in our own local newspapers in our community on the illegal immigration issue," Deal said.