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Editorial Advisory Board: We need transparency in choosing a public defender

Not all states have public defender systems. And not all of those who do, have a statewide public defender system.  The Maryland Office of the Public Defender is an independent state agency with 12 district offices representing the various counties and Baltimore city, and with 11 statewide divisions.  Its budget in fiscal 2022 totaled $112.2 million. The agency employs 946 people.

A Board of Trustees appointed by the governor, the president of the Senate and the speaker of the House of Delegates, oversees the agency and, importantly, appoints the Maryland State Public Defender.  All of this is to state the importance of the position of the Maryland Public Defender who oversees the entire agency.

In 2009, the General Assembly, after a public hearing spearheaded by then-Sen. Brian E. Frosh in response to the then-three-member Board of Trustees’ termination of the Maryland State Public Defender, instituted significant changes to the Public Defender Statute governing the agency’s operations. Some of the most important changes included increasing the Board of Trustees’ membership from 3 to 13, limiting the term of the head of the agency to six-years, and changing the position of public defender from an “at will” employee who could be fired for any reason or no reason at all to a “for cause” employee who may only be terminated for specified causes.

Thus, the General Assembly, through its amendments, only underscored the importance of the Maryland Public Defender position.

In June of 2022, the current public defender, Paul DeWolfe, will be retiring. The Board of Trustees has advertised the position as follows:

“The statutory provisions governing the qualifications, appointment, salary, and removal of Public Defender can be found at Md. Code, Criminal Procedure, § 16-203, which provides, in part: ‘To qualify for appointment as Public Defender, an individual shall be an attorney admitted to practice law in the State by the Court of Appeals of Maryland who has engaged in the practice of law for at least 5 years before appointment.’ It is recommended that anyone interested in seeking that position review and be familiar with those qualifications …”

This is all the public knows of the board’s intentions. We have no idea how many have applied for the position, who the applicants are, or when interviews will take place. And according to the advertisement, it seems that the board has set an extremely low bar of minimum statutory qualifications for such an important position. That is, of course, unless the board has in mind other, more pertinent, qualifications that it will require. But, because of the lack of transparency no one, other than the board, knows.

The lack of transparency in this selection process is concerning to this Editorial Advisory Board in light of the importance of the position. We urge the Board of Trustees to shine a light on its process of hiring the Maryland Public Defender.

Editorial Advisory Board member Arthur F. Fergenson did not participate in this opinion.

EDITORIAL ADVISORY BOARD MEMBERS

James B. Astrachan, Chair

James K. Archibald

Gary E. Bair

Andre M. Davis

Arthur F. Fergenson

Nancy Forster

Susan Francis

Leigh Goodmark

Roland Harris

Michael Hayes

Julie C. Janofsky

Ericka N. King

Angela W. Russell

Debra G. Schubert

H. Mark Stichel

The Daily Record Editorial Advisory Board is composed of members of the legal profession who serve voluntarily and are independent of The Daily Record. Through their ongoing exchange of views, members of the board attempt to develop consensus on issues of importance to the bench, bar and public. When their minds meet, unsigned opinions will result. When they differ, or if a conflict exists, majority views and the names of members who do not participate will appear. Members of the community are invited to contribute letters to the editor and/or columns about opinions expressed by the Editorial Advisory Board.