An Idaho native now representing indigent defendants in Florida will serve as Blaine County’s first chief public defender after accepting the job Tuesday, marking a long-discussed step in the process of bringing indigent defense in-house.
The county commissioners unanimously chose Justin McCarthy from three finalists put forward by a judge-appointed panel of three local defense attorney—Keith Roark, Andrew Parnes and Brian Elkins. The board announced the offer during a regular meeting Tuesday morning, and McCarthy accepted later that day.
Currently, McCarthy serves as assistant regional conflict counsel for the 19th Circuit Court of Florida, handling indigent felony cases in St. Lucie and Okeechobee counties. From 2012 to 2017, he worked as a public defender in the Fort Pierce, Fla., office, handling 4,000 clients over the span, according to Blaine County Commissioner Angenie McCleary.
“He has an extensive legal background in public defense, and extensive trial experience,” McCleary said. “He comes to us highly regarded, and very capable—not only of doing the legal work, but of setting up this office from square one.”
McCarthy, an Idaho native certified under the state bar, will start May 31. Then, he’ll have four months to get the office up and running.
During talks throughout 2018, the commissioners envisioned a department that would mirror the structure of the Prosecuting Attorney’s Office. Blaine County’s new public defender office will include at least one other attorney, as well as support staff, McCleary told the Idaho Mountain Express on Tuesday.
“This is a rare opportunity where we can make a decision that has a direct, positive impact on our community,” Commissioner Jacob Greenberg said via telephone Tuesday morning. “We can elevate the level of service.”
With a class action case pending before the state Supreme Court, public defense is under legal scrutiny across Idaho—and the board is betting that the in-house office will improve communication, oversight and, ultimately, representation to pass constitutional muster for indigent clients.
Now, the county contracts with attorneys to represent accused parties whom the commissioners deem unable to afford counsel. For lawyer and client alike, it’s luck of the draw: Public defenders serve in a monthly rotation, covering all cases—felony or misdemeanor—that pop up during the period.
The county’s current deal with its contract public defenders expires Oct. 1, the first day of fiscal 2020. McCarthy will have to submit a budget for the office this summer—and it’s likely to add expense to the county rolls. Initial estimates last June put the cost of starting a new department around $600,000 annually, including McCarthy’s roughly $116,000 starting salary. The county will also need to cover the cost of retrofitting the basement of the Old County Courthouse in Hailey into office space. In fiscal 2018, the county spent $364,000 in contract fees.
“It will take a little time [for McCarthy] to get up to speed, but he has the right combination of skills and knowledge to lead an office,” McCleary said. “I think he’s going to do a great job.”