Rochester’s public defender selection process criticized

Rochester’s public defender selection process criticized

Elizabeth Stull

As the Monroe County Legislature focused on passing the 2008 budget on Tuesday night, a quiet storm brewing over the selection process for the next public defender came to a head.

Three weeks ago, legislative President Wayne Zyra announced his creation of a screening panel to review candidates, but community leaders are raising objections that Zyra’s proposed process is politically driven rather than merit-based, like the bar association process for screening the current public defender.

In a telephone interview prior to Tuesday’s meeting, Zyra said times have changed since Edward Nowak was selected for the job in 1977, and he sees no reason for the current Legislature to pass on its responsibility to any outside group.

In response, community leaders lead by state Assemblyman David Gantt have formed a coalition that represents 17 individuals from 14 organizations, including the Rochester Faith Alliance, Judicial Process Commission (Urban League), the NAACP and the League of Women Voters.

In addition to the appearance of political influence, the community leaders argue Zyra’s panel does not represent Rochester’s minority communities.

Rev. Errol Hunt of the Rochester Faith Alliance was one of five speakers Tuesday night who asked the Legislature to endorse the previous apolitical, merit-based screening process.

“This nation is seriously and dangerously divided,” Hunt said, “by economics, politically and racially. … We need so badly to come together as a people, as a human race, … to be sure this division does not reach dangerous proportions here in Rochester.”

“We have one of the finest public defenders in the country because the community came together in a non-partisan manner” to select Nowak in the 1970s, Hunt said.

Representatives of the Diocese of Rochester and the Episcopal Diocese of Rochester, the chairman of the Urban League’s Judicial Process Commission and attorney Daan Braveman president of Nazareth College, also spoke during the meeting and received loud applause.

“If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it,” said the Rev. Peter Peters of the Episcopal Diocese. “The current proposal appears to take away the voices of our community and … to make it more political. And we don’t want that.”

Zyra recently named nine members to his screening panel: himself; one appointment each by the majority and minority legislative leaders; Appellate Division, Fourth Department Justice Nancy Smith; Monroe County Supreme Court Justice Steven Lindley, a criminal term judge and former city court judge; Family Court Judge Gail Donofrio; county attorney Daniel DeLaus and two appointments by the Monroe County Bar Association. So far, all of the members are white except for one MCBA de-signee.

In 1973, and again in 1977, MCBA trustees designated three attorneys, three judges and three community leaders to its screening panel. They also invited three legislators to participate as non- voting members. Two members of the first panel were minority members.

The bar initially supported Zyra’s committee, but due to the community’s “unanswered questions,” the MCBA has offered to assemble an independent screening committee that would recommend the three most-qualified candidates to the Legislature — just as it did 30 years ago. MCBA President Thomas G. Smith said the committee likely would include members designated by the Greater Rochester Association for Women Attorneys and the Rochester Black Bar Association, which did not exist in 1977.

Zyra said he did not think it was appropriate for the Legislature to designate the screening process to any outside group: “I feel it’s a legislative function. I see no reason to pass that responsibility off to anybody else in the community to do. I feel it’s our responsibility to do it, and we should do it.”

He said he believes the Legislature is equally qualified to review candidates and suggested before Tuesday night’s meeting that community opposition was being driven by a politician who would like to direct the process himself.

“The defense of the poor and disadvantaged should not be a political football,” Gantt said in a statement. The assemblyman and the Coalition for a Fair and Independent Monroe County Public Defender’s Selection Process attribute Nowak’s success, in part, to the way in which he was selected and the fact that the community supported the process.

“The bar does not have a bone to pick in this,” Gantt said. “I don’t care who they were, [if] they were chosen by the bar.”

Zyra could not be reached for comment on Wednesday morning, and Nowak did not return a call for comment.

He told those gathered Tuesday night, and who celebrated his years of service, that “it really has been an honor and a privilege to serve the people in this community who don’t really have a voice.”

The county attorney has agreed to give legislators a summary of the 1977 selection process by Friday.

Copyright 2007 Dolan Media Newswires

Provided by ProQuest Information and Learning Company. All rights Reserved.