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August 2013 CBA REPORT
feature article
“Two roads diverged in a yellow wood,
And sorry I could not travel both
And be one traveler, long I stood
And looked down one as far as I could
To where it bent in the undergrowth.”
Robert Frost’s poignant poem mir-
rors the dichotomies that currently exist
in my professional life. At my core, I am
a defender. From the early days of my
career, I have accepted criminal appoint-
ments. My first appointments were not
necessarily accepted because of a need
to do something noble; I was simply the
youngest in a litigation department and
I was assigned these cases as an oppor-
tunity to flex my newly minted litigation
skills as a lawyer. It was as I represented
the indigent that I began to understand
the nobility of the public defenders —
those who dedicated their lives to helping
the less fortunate in our society.
Although I
began my career
in a large law
firm environ-
ment, I eventually
changed my focus
from private
practice to public
service, spending
12 years in the Federal Public Defender’s
Office in Cincinnati. I always maintained
contact with the Hamilton County Public
Defender’s Office, although this contact
ebbed and flowed with the changes in my
career. One constant remained in that
relationship: my desire to see the County
office more fully developed into a profes-
sional organization that continued to
focus on the needs of its clients.
“Then took the other, as just as fair,
And having perhaps the better claim
Because it was grassy and wanted wear;
Though as for that the passing there
Had worn them really about the same.”
My downtown office at Porter Wright
Morris & Arthur looks north towards
the Hamilton County Courthouse and
Justice Center, the lynchpins of the
criminal justice system in Cincinnati.
Although I spent years treading the halls
of those very edifices of justice, my con-
nection with the day-to-day operations at
the Public Defender’s Office had grown
distant. That was about to change.
In the spring of 2012, the Public De-
fender’s Office was in an unsettled state
due to the departure of its Public Defend-
er. The Office consisted of 125 lawyers
and staff members, many of whom were
new hires at their first job. In a little over
a year, these fresh employees experienced
the departure of an interim defender, and
then the hiring and subsequent depar-
ture of a new defender. During this time,
I could not help but hope that the Of-
fice’s young lawyers and staff would not
become lost in the chaos of transition,
and above all else that they would not
lose their passion for assuring that every
client had the right to a fair trial.
It was then that I was approached by
the Hamilton County Public Defender
Commission to serve as the interim
public defender. To my joy, the interim
appointment was fully supported by my
law firm, and I agreed to spend 20 hours
a week in the Public Defender’s Office, at
no compensation to the firm. I also con-
firmed my commitment of service would
not exceed 100 days.
“And both that morning equally lay
In leaves no step had trodden black.
Oh, I kept the first for another day!
Yet knowing how way leads on to way
I doubted if I should ever come back.”
On April 15, 2012, I arrived at the
Public Defender’s Office, quite honestly
not knowing the true state of affairs.
While I had maintained contact with
friends in the office, I had not been
involved in appoint-
ments in Hamilton
County for many
years. I believe that
the people in the office
were just as nervous
about my arrival as
I was. During my
first few days, several
things became very apparent. First, the
people in the office needed a voice; an
opportunity to discuss their needs and
concerns. Secondly, it became clear that
while there was a strong management
structure in place, there was a lack of
vision for what the Hamilton County
Public Defender’s Office could be.
By W. Kelly Johnson
The Road Not Taken
Recollections of my public service as the
Hamilton County Public Defender
I began to understand the nobility of the public
defenders — those who dedicated their lives to
helping the less fortunate in our society.
1,2,3,4,5,6,7 9,10,11,12,13,14,15,16,17,18,...36
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