County's new public defender to bring 'passion' to the job
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The Downtown attorney named to be the new Allegheny County public defender pledged to bring to the post his "passion for criminal defense."
Elliot Howsie, 43, was appointed Thursday to the position by Allegheny County Executive Rich Fitzgerald. He will replace Michael J. Machen, who was appointed by former County Executive Dan Onorato in 2004.
The public defender oversees a staff of 82 lawyers responsible for the defense of 10,000 indigent adult clients each year and has a budget of $7.6 million.
The public defender's office came under fire late last year when it was revealed that a 2008 study paid for by the county showed that it was "dysfunctional" and needed a stronger manager.
"I don't have a history of management, but I have worked in and understand the criminal justice system," Mr. Howsie said. "I know what it takes to be a good defense attorney."
A prosecutor in the Allegheny County district attorney's office for several years, Mr. Howsie said he will be willing to tackle existing problems. "The vast majority of employees in that office want to do a good job and have done the best work they can," Mr. Howsie said.
Mr. Fitzgerald said he talked to dozens of lawyers before deciding on Mr. Howsie, the first African-American to hold the position. The interview process, including both formal and informal meetings with candidates, began even before he took office in January, Mr. Fitzgerald said.
"What came back to me from prosecutors, defense lawyers and the judiciary was that Elliot has such a good reputation in the defense arena," Mr. Fitzgerald said. "Elliot understands the value of hard work."
Allegheny County Common Pleas Judge Jeffrey A. Manning, who oversees the criminal division, said Mr. Howsie will have the full support of the bench when he takes over on March 19.
Still, the judge expects Mr. Howsie's most significant problem will be "what has plagued the office for decades: the inadequate level of funding."
Pennsylvania is the only state in the nation that provides no state funding for indigent defense. "Nobody wants to pay for the constitutional right for a lawyer," Judge Manning said.
Mr. Fitzgerald said that, like all county department heads, Mr. Howsie will be bound by budgetary constraints. "Money is tight," the county executive said.
Mr. Howsie believes some funding could be saved if the speed in handling cases is increased. "I believe everyone's costs go up as cases drag out," he said.
Judge Manning, who has long lamented the lack of funding, said he doesn't see the problem changing without the state government taking on the issue.
"I don't know any other way to move the Legislature in that direction without having a court order to do it, and obviously that comes from a lawsuit," Judge Manning said.
Allegheny County was sued once before by the American Civil Liberties Union in 1996 on behalf of indigent defendants. The lawsuit claimed that clients were receiving inadequate representation, and that attorneys lacked training and carried caseloads that were too heavy.
The parties reached a settlement agreement which improved the attorney-to-client ratio and allowed for the hiring of additional attorneys and investigators. That agreement expired in 2005.
After recent problems in the office came to light, Witold Walczak, the state legal director for the ACLU said that litigation was not out of the question.
On Thursday, Mr. Walczak, who had encouraged Mr. Fitzgerald to do a national search and sought funding from nonprofit foundations to do so, said he looks forward to working with Mr. Howsie. "We're all in," Mr. Walczak said. "We'll do whatever is necessary to support and help him in reforming that office."
Mr. Walczak spoke recently with Mr. Howsie. "I was impressed with his commitment to improve the level of public defender service," he said.
Mr. Fitzgerald has said he takes the problems outlined in the public defender study seriously.
While he considered a national search, he ultimately rejected the idea. A search for what he called a "superstar" public defender with a national reputation could take many months and would allow the question of succession to drag on too long, he said.
Mr. Howsie will earn $98,345 and does not plan on representing any individual clients.
M. Gayle Moss, the president of the Pittsburgh branch of the NAACP, said Mr. Howsie is a good choice, especially because he grew up in Pittsburgh. "He's from the area. He's a very smart individual," she said.
"He is well respected and a highly skilled attorney," lawyer Jennifer Arnette said of Mr. Howsie. "He is an excellent choice." She is chairwoman of the Homer S. Brown Division of the Allegheny County Bar Association. The Brown division, and its predecessor organization, the Homer S. Brown Law Association, have long represented the interests of the county's African-American and other minority attorneys.
First Published March 2, 2012 12:00 am