MAYVILLE - Two candidates remain in consideration for the position of county public defender.
Both were questioned on their qualifications Wednesday by the legislature's Public Safety Committee.
In the case of the county's current public defender, R. Thomas Rankin, the meeting at times felt more like a court proceeding.
Public Defender R. Thomas Rankin, at right, was questioned Wednesday about his qualifications by the Public Safety Committee. Rankin is up for reappointment to the position of county public defender.
P-J photo by Nicholas L. Dean
"This is not a trial," Rankin said at one point, while being grilled on the extent of his work experience.
Rankin was appointed to the position of public defender last year by the legislature's Republican majority. The legislature is now split between a 12-member Republican caucus and a 12-member caucus of mostly Democrats.
Rankin was put up for reappointment earlier this month. That vote failed to pass, as legislator Bob Duff, R-Sheridan, sided with Democrats against Rankin's reappointment.
R. THOMAS RANKIN'S
Statement To Public Safety Committee
I seek reappointment as the public defender. I was unanimously appointed last January by the full legislature. I seek reappointment for another term.
I would note that it wasn't long ago that the appointments were for two year periods and I would, no matter who the legislature appoints, I would recommend that you go back to two-year terms so that there is some continuity in the office. Having these one year or less terms does not serve the office of the public defender well. It does not serve the indigent clients and it does not serve the people of Chautauqua County.
With regards to my experience, I handed out copies of my resume and a different summary of experience which is more detailed. And regarding my summary of experience, I would point out that I have argued at the Court of Appeals, the highest court in New York - plus these other appellate divisions and county courts as well as division of parole.
I have indeed run a felony jury trial, misdemeanor trials, jury and non-jury. I represented clients for writs of habeas corpus and writs of error coram nobis.
I have handled what we call 4-40 motions, 3-30 motions, 30-30 motions nad 7-30 hearings. I have appeared with clients with grand jury proceedings and preliminary hearings.
Just today I was in Jamestown City Court for four different cases, all for preliminary hearings. Sex offender designation, that's when the court determines a person to be level 1, 2 or 3 as a sex offender; violations of probation; pleas and I would take a moment to stress that in the public defender's office we have lots of straightforward pleas, but we also have quite a number of complicated pleas where we have different courts involved, where we have felonies in one court and misdemeanors in another court; where we have a DWI case for one client and some client has a felony charge somewhere else.
These are very difficult packages to put together. Attorneys work together and we work with the district attorney's office in getting what we call global settlement offers. I've also worked with putting people into judicial aversion where it's clear that they are non-violent defendant and they have a substance abuse issue. We would rather address the substance abuse issue, holding them accountable for their crimes, but address really the substance abuse issue and hopefully break that cycle of criminal activity.
We also cooperate with law enforcement, or the clients do - where they want to help. Confidential informants is the term used and with those cases we work to keep those as low profile as possible so that the defendant is not in any danger.
I have significant family law experience. Let us not forget that the public defender has a Family Court division. We have three attorneys over there. Now we have a separation and I generally work in the criminal law side of things, but where there are issues in family law, I certainly have the experience. I have run custody trials, neglect trials, family offense trials, visitation hearings and trials, child support trials - including the issue of emancipated children. I have participated in parental rights proceedings. I have done family court appeals. In Family Court we also have what's known as writs of habeas corpus - parental kidnapping cases, multi-jurisdiction cases and paternity proceedings.
So when last week when Family Court called and said they were scheduling a meeting regarding how they plan to implement new procedures with regards to neglect cases, I was unable to attend due to my heavy court schedule, but I was able to have a frank and informative discussion with the staff of the Family Court chambers.
Administratively, on the back, I put together the Jamestown Pilot Project.
I work with my secretary, Kim Taylor, on the departmental budget preparation. In Jamestown they are organizing a veterans court to help those people who are veterans and charged with crimes - modeled after the Buffalo Veterans Court. I put the administrative staff on the Chronos System, which is our time management system in the county. And that has gone very well.
For the first time in recent memory we are starting staff performance reviews. That is still in process, but I have started that.
Local courts require... It seems simple, but when people have unpaid fines in different courts they don't know who to contact. Using the grant money we have, we're putting together a flier with all of the local courts' addresses and phone numbers. We'll be handing that out to courts and our attorneys to give to the defendants.
I have started grant writing and hopefully will be writing some more grant applications in the coming year. With our grant we have purchased a large monitor. We now get a significant part of our discovery information from the D.A. on DVD or CD - pictures, video interrogations and so forth. We don't really have in our office, up until now, a place where you can look at those things at a large level. We'll get little, tiny snapshots, but we now have a monitor - it's soon to be installed - that will allow us to look at these discovery materials in a larger format and hopefully help with the preparation of trials and motions.
And I would note that I am the immediate past president of the Jamestown Bar Association. I believe that I have the experience both as a criminal attorney, a family law attorney and as an administrator to continue as public defender and I enjoy the job.
I took this job not because I needed a place to go, but because I enjoy the work.
I know there's been a lot of talk already today. I would take umbrage at the fact... to that statement about morale. Morale is fine as far as I can tell. We have attorneys in the office. We're decentralized, but the attorneys come in throughout the week. Staff and I have a great relationship here in Mayville. I think morale has been very good, has improved this year and I said this at the beginning and I'll say it in a different way.
Yes, this is a political appointment. Yes, the public defender serves at the pleasure of the legislature. But I think this office has become too politicized. We are here to serve the indigent clients of Chautauqua County. I think it's time that we appoint a public defender and let us do our job and let us help these clients.
Every time I speak, it's in the press. That's, to a certain extent, part of the job. But I think it's been too much of that. I think it's time to get back to work. And I really and honestly think that at the end of the day we should have a two-year term for the public defender, have some continuity so we can serve our clients best.
Majority Leader Larry Barmore, R-Gerry, is again sponsoring Rankin as a candidate for the position of public defender. Democrats have since named Ned Barone as their choice for the position.
Ultimately, the committee voted 3 to 1 Wednesday against the Rankin resolution. The committee then voted unanimously for the proposal naming Barone public defender - minus the vote of PJ Wendel, R-Lakewood, who was absent from the meeting.
Despite the Rankin proposal having failed in committee, both candidates will likely be considered next week by the full legislature.
Legislator William Coughlin, D-Fredonia, led the lines of questions asked of Rankin and Barone Wednesday.
Coughlin is the county's former public defender. He was reappointed to the position for the final time in 2010. Rankin was appointed public defender at the start of 2011.
"I was unanimously appointed last January by the full legislature," Rankin said Wednesday. "I seek reappointment for another term. ... With regards to my experience ... I would point out that I have argued at the Court of Appeals, the highest court in New York - plus these other appellate divisions and county courts as well as division of parole. I have indeed run a felony jury trial, misdemeanor trials, jury and non-jury."
Rankin's full opening statement, can be found online with this article at www.post-journal.com.
Coughlin then questioned Rankin on specifics of his work experience - such as that, prior to becoming public defender, Rankin had two jury misdemeanor trials.
"How many felony trials did you do before you became the public defender?" Coughlin asked.
"Jury trials? I had done none," Rankin answered.
Coughlin built to the point that, after being made public defender, Rankin issued a memo stating that he would handle all Class A felonies, homicides and sex crimes.
"Do you believe that having two misdemeanor trials in Jamestown City Court qualified you to do homicides?" he asked. "You appointed yourself to be in charge of homicides and felony crimes without any felony trial experience, correct?"
"At that point, that is correct," Rankin responded.
After additional questions, with a full agenda still before the committee, Bob Duff, R-Sheridan, who chairs the committee, suggested ending the questioning of Rankin - though Coughlin still had points he wanted to make.
"I think we've got our point across," Duff said. "I think we've gone far enough as far as this is concerned. After all, we've got work to do out here and the way it looks, we're not going to get it done."
Coughlin responded by saying that the questions being asked of the candidates gets to the heart of what legislators should consider when choosing a public defender.
"These are questions about whether or not he's qualified, whether or not he's qualified and can continue as public defender," Coughlin said.
When questioning Barone, Coughlin asked largely the same line of questions.
Barone answered that he has been an attorney for 24 years, with 90 percent being criminal work. In terms of misdemeanor cases,
Barone said he's handled roughly 5,000 - with anywhere from 100 to 150 being jury trials. In terms of felony trials, Barone said he has done close to 100 and approximately six murder jury trials to verdict. Barone also gave a detailed description of his practice to the committee, which is a felony practice.
Both Rankin and Coughlin had final statements to make prior to Barone being questioned.
Rankin said that he felt Coughlin had unfairly painted him and alleged that Coughlin was upset over not having been reappointed public defender in 2011. Rankin also said he felt Coughlin's questions were based more on emotion than fact.
Coughlin responded by saying that he took Rankin's remarks as a personal insult, adding that he retired from the county on Jan. 2, 2011, and that he is doing just fine where he works now.
"I have no animosity toward Mr. Rankin, if he did his job," Coughlin said. "I just want a public defender who knows what he's doing. That's all."
After the meeting, Rankin gave additional comments to The Post-Journal regarding the nature of the public defender's position.
"The public defender's job is both as an attorney and as a department head," Rankin said. "And when you look at all the cases we handle, I would say only about 1 percent of those ever go to trial - that we spend most of our time on plea bargains and that's just the nature of our system. Like it or not, that is the system we have. And that the public defender needs to have trial skills but also negotiation skills and administrative skills - leadership skills. And to base the appointment solely on trial experience isn't always going to be the best idea."