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DeWolfe, Maryland’s chief public defender, will step down this summer

“There are still too many people held without bail, so there is still a lot of work to do on pretrial reform,” says retiring Maryland Public Defender Paul B. DeWolfe. (The Daily Record/File Photo)

Paul B. DeWolfe, whose name will be forever linked to the right of Maryland defendants to have counsel at initial bail hearings, will step down on June 30 after more than 12 years as the state’s chief public defender.

DeWolfe, whose departure will coincide with the conclusion of his six-year term, has been an ardent defender of his agency during lean financial times. He would often testify before the General Assembly, asserting that the agency’s caseload outstripped its budget, which is $114.9 million this year.

DeWolfe, 74, said Tuesday that he is proud that his agency’s opposition to the death penalty led to the General Assembly’s repeal of capital punishment in 2013. He also praised improvements in his agency’s forensic department, which has resulted in acquittals and exonerations based on DNA evidence.

“I’ve had a wonderful career,” DeWolfe said. “I’m looking forward to taking time off, doing some traveling and spending time with my grandkids.”

The soft-spoken DeWolfe often shunned the spotlight, such as when he surrendered his opportunity to argue two cases before the U.S. Supreme Court — Maryland v. Shatzer in 2009 and Maryland v. King in 2013 — and instead assigned them to assistant public defender Celia Davis and private attorney Kannon Shanmugam to no avail. The state won both appeals.

DeWolfe, however, could not avoid public attention when he was the named defendant and later petitioner in the Maryland high court’s landmark 2013 decision that the Maryland Constitution guarantees a right to counsel for defendants when they are brought before a district court commissioner to determine if they are to post bond, be held in custody or be released on their own recognizance.

DeWolfe praised the Court of Appeals 4-3 decision in DeWolfe v. Richmond, recalling that “we took the position that the plaintiffs were right.”

After the high court’s ruling, DeWolfe proposed that his office provide the attorneys to indigent defendants, estimating the plan’s cost at $30 million. The General Assembly rejected the proposal as too expensive and instead allocated $10 million from the Maryland Judiciary’s budget to fund the Appointed Attorneys Program, created by the Judiciary’s Standing Committee on Rules of Practice and Procedure in late 2013.

DeWolfe has been an outspoken supporter of reforming the bail system, saying it violates the due process rights of low-income Marylanders who cannot afford to pay it.

“There are still too many people held without bail, so there is still a lot of work to do on pretrial reform,” he said Tuesday.

DeWolfe had been Montgomery County’s chief public defender when he was appointed in December 2009 to the top job during a time of turmoil at the state agency. His predecessor, Nancy S. Forster, was fired in August 2009 by a vote of 2-1 by the then-three-member Board of Trustees of the Office of the Maryland Public Defender.

DeWolfe’s successor will be named by the reconstituted 13-member board, consisting of 11 gubernatorial appointees, a member named by the Senate president and another selected by the House speaker.

“It’s time for me to retire and move on and let someone else take over,” DeWolfe said.

The board has set a March 1 deadline for applications to be chief public defender. Applicants must meet the minimum qualifications of being a licensed Maryland attorney and have practiced law for at least five years prior to appointment by the board.