UF Law alumna new public defender of 8th Judicial Circuit
Look out Alachua County — there’s a new public defender in town.
Stacy A. Scott (JD 95), University of Florida Levin College of Law graduate and former supervisor of the county court in Alachua County, was appointed by former Gov. Charlie Crist as the 8th Judicial Circuit public defender from Dec. 1, 2010, to Jan. 7, 2013. Scott’s professional experience since UF Law fits the bill: 11 ½ years in the Public Defender’s Office, nearly two years as an assistant state attorney and a stint in private practice. She will lead an office of 35 attorneys, manage a $5 million budget and oversee nearly 22,000 cases this year.
“If you know me at all, you know that I’m pretty straightforward,” Scott said. “What you see is what you get. I try to be myself in every situation. And although I thought the transition from being ‘one of the crew’ to head of the office might be difficult, I figured that if I continued to be that way as head of the office, everything would work out.”
Although Scott’s interest in practicing law began at a young age, it wasn’t until law school that she developed her interest in criminal defense.
“Then I took the public defender clinic here in this office and became very excited about fighting for the rights of underprivileged people and, in essence, fighting for everyone’s rights,” Scott said.
Her first job, however, was as a prosecutor under Rod Smith in the State Attorney’s Office.
“That was the job opportunity at the time, and I thought doing something from a side that maybe wasn’t as natural to me as the defense side would be a real learning experience,” Scott said. “And it was. And I’m really glad that things worked out that way. I got to see a perspective that I wouldn’t have seen otherwise and got to meet a lot of great people. But, in the end, my heart was more on the defense side, so I came back over to the PD’s office. And I’ve been here ever since.”
Scott left the State in 1997 to join the Public Defender’s Office in the felony division trying serious felony cases, and stayed there for two years before going into private practice in 1999. Scott came back to the Public Defender’s Office in October 2002, working in the felony and juvenile divisions. The last few years she has dedicated to supervising the county court and running the public defender clinic at the UF Levin College of Law.
“And this unexpected opportunity came along when Rick retired, and he told me that he was going to recommend that I be appointed to replace him,” Scott said of former Public Defender C. Richard Parker (JD 72). “I was really honored and humbled and thrilled all at the same time.”
Jeanne Singer (JD 77), chief assistant state attorney for the 8th Judicial Circuit, has worked in the State Attorney’s Office for about 25 years. In her role as chief assistant, she supervises about 50 practicing attorneys who work for the prosecutor’s office, representing the state of Florida when a defendant is charged with a criminal offense.
Singer first met Scott in the State Attorney’s Office in 1996 when Scott was hired on as a prosecutor in the domestic violence division.
“At that time, I was head of the division that prosecuted crimes against women, children and families, and Stacy was hired as a prosecutor in our county court domestic violence division,” Singer said. “So very early on, we developed a close relationship working together as prosecutors and grew to be great friends from her initial position as an assistant state attorney.”
Singer said Scott impressed her as a person with strong convictions.
“She’s not only smart but savvy and energetic,” Singer said. “She’s one of those people who view the glass as half full, and she’s going to make sure that it remains that way for herself and other people who are not as fortunate as she is.”
Singer said that although the relationship between the prosecution and defense is adversarial, she believes she is fortunate to practice in a circuit with individuals, such as Scott, who make sure they do the best job they can to honor the profession and the process.
“You know, I might be biased, but I think we have a very special interface with our Public Defender’s Office here in that both the state and the defense want to see the best resolution of a matter that benefits the community, the victim and the defendant,” she said.
“We work very diligently to keep our jail populations low, and to afford defendant diversion or treatment programs in lieu of incarceration. Ultimately, there are some that we do have to incarcerate, but we try our best to separate the folks who have made a mistake from those who have intentionally, knowingly and willfully committed a crime and need to be punished. And we make a real effort to assure that each person’s case is addressed individually.”
Craig DeThomasis (JD 83), criminal defense attorney and adjunct professor for UF Law’s trial practice course, first met Scott when he brought her on as an associate with his law firm DeThomasis & Buchanan, P.A.
Although he has been in private practice for nearly 24 years, he served a stint from 1983 to 1987 in the Public Defender’s Office as an assistant public defender.
“Public defenders have to do some of the more difficult work required in the criminal justice system, advocating for people who are by definition indigent,” DeThomasis said. “When you look across the board from a sociological perspective, ‘indigent’ a lot of times equates to less educated and more difficult life problems, either because of a lack of education or lack of finances and the things that go along with that. And all those collateral problems come into play when you are trying to resolve that person’s problem in court.”
DeThomasis also said it has become more difficult to advocate for criminal defendants due to legislation that has increased penalties and added mandatory minimum sentencing requirements.
“Since I’ve been practicing, we’ve had more and more legislation that has taken discretion away from the judges,” he said. “A great majority of cases are resolved with settlements, compromises and plea negotiations. Although the court independently needs to evaluate accepting, rejecting or modifying the proposed agreement, in large part, the lawyers as adversaries work toward that compromise and propose it to the court.”
One of the largest issues Scott will face in her new role as public defender is the state budget crisis, Singer said.
“We have such good, solid people doing this work now and they may not be available in the future if pay is cut and retirement is not available,” she said. “We are one of the most essential parts in assuring our constitution is protected. If you cut these institutions too much, it impinges on constitutional protections, which affects not only defendants, but all of us in the community, because if the system doesn’t work right, it doesn’t work for any of us.”
Scott said that due to the budget crunch, her office handles almost three times as many cases per year as is recommended by the American Bar Association.
“If we followed their guidelines, we should have almost 90 lawyers, but we have only 35,” she said. “And without a public defender, indigent people — who make up the majority of our clients in this office — would be left to face the might of the government on their own. The right to counsel is a fundamental right and is what really gives meaning to the presumption of innocence and the right to a fair trial. Those principles don’t mean anything unless you have a lawyer there in court.”
Ultimately, it takes a special type of person to fulfill the role of the public defender, Scott said.
“We’re kind of mavericks by definition and individualistic by nature,” Scott said. “We’ve had some lawyers who spent their entire careers working for the Public Defender’s Office and others who have come in and burned out in six months to a year. Whether you stay and how you adapt to this line of work is really based on who you are. It’s definitely not for the faint of heart and not for certain people.
“As a citizen, you may think that client has done the worst thing a person could ever do, but as a public defender, your duty is to represent that person to the best of your ability,” Scott said. “And you can only do that and sleep at night by having a strong belief in the system — a belief in the right to representation no matter what the accusation.”
But beneath her somewhat tough exterior lies a heart filled with passion for the role of the public defender — to see to it that her clients receive a fair shake.
“If there isn’t a PD who can be there to represent the client, then justice can’t be served. Every once in a while, there’s a person who’s wrongly accused, and that’s what really gets the fire going in your belly.”