At the memorial service for the late Metro Public Defender Ross Alderman on Tuesday, the Grateful Dead classic “Ripple” was played as part of the tribute. The songs lyrics say a great deal about Alderman’s role in this community.
The song contains the line, “You who choose to lead must follow, But if you fall you fall alone.”
It was an appropriate tribute to Alderman, who was widely respected for his dedication to the office of public defender. But it should also serve as a warning to those who are contemplating filling his boots.
The Metropolitan Code and Charter. Section 2.16.010(A) speaks in rather plain language about the substantial social and ethical burdens of the public defenders office.
“The public defender shall render legal aid and defend only those indigent defendants who are in jail, charged with the commission of a crime and are unable to make bond, or such other defendants as a court with criminal jurisdiction shall determine to be indigent,” the code states. “In addition, the public defender shall provide guardian ad litem services when such services are deemed required by the Davidson County juvenile court for children who are the subject of proceedings in such court and the metropolitan government would be required by law to pay reasonable compensation for such services if not provided by the public defender.”
To put it another way, the people who serve in the office of public defender are charged with ensuring that indigent defendants are afforded their constitutional rights.
With the death of Alderman, there will be a new person tasked with leading the public defender’s office. That person will be selected soon by Metro Council.
According to the Metro legal department, the city charter calls for an announcement to be made at a meeting of the Metro Council that there is a vacancy in the office of public defender. Council will then have to wait four weeks before they can officially appoint an interim public defender.
To permanently fill the seat, a public defender is elected at the next August General Election. According to the Davidson County Election Commission, that won’t occur until 2010.
While it may seem “too soon” for many, speculation is rampant as to who will take Alderman’s seat.
The post has been an unlikely launching pad for notable figures in the city, chief among them is current Nashville Mayor Karl Dean. He served as public defender before heading up the Metro legal department at the request of former Mayor Bill Purcell, whom he succeeded in office.
Purcell himself served in the office from 1981 to 1985. Other prominent alumni are former Davidson County Circuit Court Judge Walter Kurtz, and noted MTSU professor Dr. Bill Shulman, to name a few.
When Alderman last ran for office in 2006, he fended off an unexpected challenge from Kelvin Jones, executive director of the Metro Human Relations Commission. Many in the legal community expect Jones to take another shot. And that possibility has some in the courthouse crowd talking.
Jones drew the ire of many in the legal community when questions were raised about his campaign tactics. One such complaint was that Jones prominently mentioned having been employed by then-Mayor Purcell, despite Purcell’s endorsement of Alderman.
When asked by NashvillePost.com at the time about concern among Alderman’s supporters about how he was portraying his association with Purcell, Jones said, “Ross is a whiner and his supporters are whiners.”
Another instance in that same campaign was a mail piece from Jones which showed him in a photo volunteering with the Lawyers Association of Women.
The problem was that the photo included Metro General Sessions Judge Dan Eisenstein and Criminal Court Judge Mark Fishburn. Although neither man was identified by name in the brochure, they had not given permission to be included. They were not happy with the mailer.
When contacted by NashvillePost.com in 2006, Fishburn strongly stated that he was not pleased.
“I was not asked, nor did I give permission for my photo to be used in the campaign piece,” Fishburn stated, “I received a copy of the campaign flier in the mail and have sent two letters to Mr. Jones asking him to discontinue using that photo. I have since seen another mail piece with an even larger photo that I am in, and I have yet to hear back from Mr. Jones. I have not endorsed anyone and feel that the use of the photo is wrong.”
Eisenstein said he wasn’t asked either. “This puts us in an awkward position,” he said at the time.
Other names being discussed around town either are presently connected with the office, have been in the past or have extensive trial court experience. They are current Deputy Public Defender Laura Dykes, assistant Public Defender and Vanderbilt Law faculty member Dawn Deaner, Maria Wooten, a deputy in the Federal Public Defenders office, and Richard McGee, who currently has a private legal practice. It is important to note that none of the individuals mentioned as possibilities to replace Alderman have stated that they will be asking Metro Council for consideration. The names listed here come from conversations with those involved in the legal community.
Those familiar with the public defender’s office say that current and former members of the staff would likely coalesce around one person and then ask the Council for support.
Deference may be given to Dykes, who served as Alderman’s deputy. Should she not want the job then expect to see a unified front from within the public defender family of employees around a candidate.
When Metro Council convenes to make an almost two-year appointment, they will have to consider many important factors.
They will be picking someone that must ensure that the constitutional rights of indigents are met. If those rights aren’t met, Metro will feel it down the road in judicial appeals. That means money and time wasted by taxpayers if the job isn’t done right.
They will want someone who will not cause an immediate brain drain from an important Metro office. Whoever comes in should be allowed to run the office the way he or she sees fit, which doesn’t mean it’s the way Alderman would have done it. But they must pick someone with the trial and leadership experience worthy of the respect of the staff.
Finally, they must realize that they are giving someone a head start on the 2010 election. This may be politics, but the office hasn’t been political. The Metro Council will have to decide if they want that tradition to continue.