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Monroe County Public Defender marks 50 years

Reunion set for Friday

The Monroe County Public Defender’s Office will celebrate its 50th anniversary with a reunion from 6 to 9 p.m. Friday at the Inn on Broadway.

“It’s going to be kind of a cocktail/grazing party,” said First Assistant Public Defender Jill Paperno, who has been with the Office since 1987.

“It’s not just limited to public defenders. There are friends of the Public Defender’s Office who are coming,” she said.

Although it has been difficult to get the word to many of the people who worked in the office over the past five decades, about 150 people are expected to attend, some from other states, she said.

“I’m very much looking forward to seeing old colleagues,” said Ed Nowak, who served as Monroe County Public Defender from April 1977, until retiring at the end of 2007.

“I don’t miss the political battles for funding, but I really miss the people that worked with me,” he said.

The reunion will supplant this year’s Defense Community Dinner, which usually takes place in the fall. And two awards that are usually presented at the Defense Community Dinner will, instead, be presented at the reunion.

Assistant Public Defender Katherine S. Higgins will receive the Jeffrey A. Jacobs Award, and Assistant Public Defender Seana Sartori will receive the Award for Excellence in Indigent Adult Representation in Family Court.

A third award normally presented at the Defense Community Dinner, the Service of Justice Award, won’t be presented this year, said Monroe County Public Defender Tim Donaher.

Paperno said planning for the reunion has highlighted the Office’s commitment to high-quality representation of indigent defendants.

“In my experience, over all of these years, we have always kept that as a goal. The office has grown, but with its growth we have continued to see excited younger attorneys who are really interested in learning the law and practicing it well join this office. And it’s been wonderful for me to watch over all these years,” she said.

The Public Defender’s Office was the indirect result of the landmark decision by the Supreme Court of the United States in the Gideon v. Wainwright case in 1963.

In Gideon, the Supreme Court ruled that states are required, under the Sixth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, to provide a lawyer to defendants in criminal cases who can’t afford one on their own.

Initially, Monroe County and many other jurisdictions used assigned counsel programs, and many still do. Many states have statewide public defender’s offices. In New York, each county has a public defender or an assigned counsel program.

The Monroe County Public Defender’s Office was created in May 1968 by the Monroe County Legislature. Since then, attorneys on the staff of the Public Defender’s Office have represented indigent clients.

Overflow work is assigned to outside attorneys and the office sometimes gets help from lawyers in private practice offering their services pro bono.

In the first year of operations, the Office represented 2,500 clients. By 1976, the number was up to 7,725 clients. In 2017, the office had about 71 lawyers and more than 28,000 new clients.

Early on, many assistant public defenders worked part time for the Office while still maintaining a private practice, which led to an outcry from many individuals and civic organizations who felt the Public Defender’s clients were not getting the full attention of high-quality legal representation.

That changed with Peter L. Yellin, who served as Public Defender from April 1974 to January 1977. He made all assistant public defenders full time.

Yellin was followed by Nowak, the longest-serving Public Defender to date. He served from April 1977 until retiring at the end of 2007. During that time, Nowak estimates, he hired about 200 assistant public defenders, many of whom are still in the office, including Paperno and Donaher.

“My focus in my hiring was always to find someone who truly wanted to do defense work,” Nowak said.

“I knew that if they didn’t have that as part of their personal constitution it wasn’t going to be a good fit,” he said.

BLoudon@BridgeTowerMedia.com / (585) 232-2035

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