A committee formed to interview Monroe County Public Defender candidates will likely recommend its choice to County Legislature President Sabrina LaMar next week.
From there, LaMar will select a finalist and put the person’s appointment up for vote in the Legislature, which next meets on May 10. LaMar convened the committee in January in what she called a “refreshed” process for picking a public defender. But that approach has become controversial, with critics charging that it hasn’t been transparent and that it has become politically charged.
Roughly 100 people turned out Monday for a forum with the candidates, held at Central Church of Christ on South Plymouth Avenue. All four were present and answered questions from the crowd, many members of which were Public Defender’s Office employees. As the audience questioned the candidates, two issues came up repeatedly: does the next public defender need to have experience working in a public defender’s office, and could a former prosecutor lead the office.
The question has a basis. Buffalo defense attorney Robert Fogg, New Jersey First Assistant Deputy Public Defender Andre Vitale, and Monroe County Special Assistant Public Defender Julie Cianca, all have notable experience in criminal defense. Cianca and Vitale each spent several years working in the Monroe County Public Defender’s Office.
The fourth candidate, Sara Valencia, was the outlier. Previously she worked as a support magistrate in Monroe County Family Court, as a municipal attorney with the city of Rochester, and as an assistant district attorney. Valencia is the only candidate without experience in criminal defense. Fogg has worked as both a prosecutor and defense attorney.
During the forum, Valencia said her experience as a prosecutor was functionally the same as serving as a defense attorney. She also argued that having someone who is not a “career” public defender could be a benefit.
“You might be a victim today, you might be a defendant tomorrow,” Valencia said. “The law is the same, criminal law is the same, the statutes are the same, the case law is the same.”
In response to questioning, Cianca said there’s no need to see whether a prosecutor can fill the role in the office.
“You don’t really have to ask that question, because you have a public defender who wants to lead the public defender’s office,” Cianca said. “That’s where you get (office attorneys’) faith, that’s where you get their trust, they know when you make a decision, it’s coming from your wealth of experience doing what they do.”
Vitale, who formerly worked for the office before leaving for Seattle and then New Jersey, said if he led the office, no one who ever formerly worked in prosecution would be hired by the office.
“I do not believe that you can competently and passionately do this job for the people you represent in the way that you do if you’ve ever served as a District Attorney,” Vitale said. “There are so many good, talented, passionate public defenders, that’s what we need.”
Fogg, who previously worked as an assistant district attorney in Niagara County, disagreed, stating that an effective public defender needs to have experience in prosecution.
“You have to be aware of all of how people prosecute and how you defend,” Fogg said. “It’s a good thing to come from that background, it’s a good thing to come from a diverse background.”
The Monroe County Public Defender’s Office was created in 1968 to comply with a Supreme Court ruling affirming that any defendant who cannot afford an attorney must be provided with one. Annually, it handles thousands of cases. In 2021, for example, the office handled 15,448 new clients, 1,710 of which were felony cases, according to the office’s annual report.
click to enlarge
- FILE PHOTO
- Former Monroe County Public Defender Tim Donaher.
The public defender position went vacant in January, when long-time Public Defender Tim Donaher opted not to seek reappointment. He was selected for the job in 2008, when then-Legislature President Wayne Zyra was accused of designating a selection panel that some county leaders charged was tainted by politics.
Similar complaints have surfaced regarding the present process, but Nathan VanLoon, who chairs the selection committee, balked at claims that politics played a role in the selection of the candidates.
“I know there wasn’t because I know nobody asked me to vote for anyone,” Van Loon said. “When I say nobody asked me to vote for anyone, that’s the truth. Quite frankly, the charge I was given was to try to find people that would be able to handle this task.”
The final four candidates, Van Loon said, were narrowed down from a total pool of eight candidates that applied for the job.
“Whoever you get out of those four, there’s going to be a different direction that office takes,” Van Loon said.
Under county law, the Legislature appoints the public defender, but the statutes do not specify any process to be used.
This time around, Legislature President Sabrina LaMar designed the process and gave herself five of the seven appointments to the committee tasked with interviewing and recommending candidates. Democratic Minority Leader Yversha Roman and Republican Majority Leader Steve Brew were each allowed one appointment to the committee.
The committee was made up of a former judge, attorneys, and clergy. Last week it shocked staff in the Public Defender’s Office and some members of the legal community when it chose not to advance Acting Public Defender Jill Paperno, a 35-year veteran of the office who Donaher had elevated to his deputy. Donaher wrote Paperno a glowing letter of recommendation for his former post.
After Paperno was snubbed, a group of about 30 anonymous attorneys within the Monroe County Public Defender’s Office issued a letter condemning the process and asking officials to restart it.
The letter lamented the use of a secret ballot process the committee used in selecting the four finalists.
But a redo seems unlikely. Van Loon, who moderated the forum, remarked that it wouldn’t happen, and the four candidates who appeared in public Monday were final.
Gino Fanelli is a CITY staff writer. He can be reached at (585) 775-9692 or [email protected].