Public defenders play a critical role in the maintenance of our justice system. Literally “the people’s lawyers,” public defenders provide legal representation to those without the financial means and children who become entangled in the criminal and civil justice systems. Without public defenders, many innocent individuals would be denied proper representation and put at risk of outcomes that are not representative of the facts of their case. Being a public defender is a thankless job; long hours, large caseloads and pay that does not even come close to compensating these lawyers for the time and energy, and public service that their commitment represents.
In New Jersey, the state Public Defender is Yvonne Smith Segars, a well respected African-American woman and lawyer who has served in the position since 2002. By statute, the term of the Public Defender is five years. After the term has expired, the governor is free to make an appointment to the position. Ms. Smith Segars was reappointed to her position in 2007, so her five year term is up in 2012. However, Governor Chris Christie now seems intent on pressuring her to resign before her term expires so he can put someone in the position to his liking. Not to be intimidated, Ms. Smith Segars wrote a forceful letter to Governor Christie vowing to remain in the position and accusing the brash governor of using “bullying tactics” that “amount to violations of the law.” The Public Defender also details in the letter how the Governor has attempted to intimidate her and the manner in which the work of her office has been affected.
In a television interview over the weekend, Governor Christie said he would not know the Public Defender “to pick her out of a lineup.” We don’t regard that as a slip of the tongue, Christie’s disregard for Ms. Smith Segars is obvious and he purposely cast the Public Defender with her constituents to send a message of his disdain for the population she represents.
As a matter of process, Governor Christie is dead-wrong in trying to interfere with the work of the Public Defender. The office is designed to be free of political interference since the state brings charges against defendants and must avoid an obvious conflict of interest by meddling with the defense bar. The governor, who claims he harbors no presidential ambitions, is trying to consolidate political power in the state in what is nothing more than an attempted power grab. We, of course, are opposed to the removal of a competent African American official, particularly in an administration that has a racial palette that resembles 1950’s America. Still, even beyond Ms. Smith Segars race and gender, we resent Governor Christie’s actions because they are an attack upon the integrity of a public office that has a far reaching impact upon the Black community.
The New Jersey NAACP and the state’s Black bar group, the Garden State Bar Association, have called for an investigation into the Governor’s actions. We echo that call. Even governors, despite how powerful they think they are, must play by the rules. In this instance, the rules are clear. Ms. Smith Segars is the Public Defender until her term expires and her office must be free of political interference so she can discharge her responsibilities. In 2012, Governor Christie will be free to make whatever appointment he desires to that position but rest assured, people of color in the Garden State will be watching.