Santa Cruz County’s Public Defender and District Attorney’s Offices—Explained

After 60 years, the county hired its first full-time public defender.

updated • UPDATED MARCH 28, 2022
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Santa Cruz is one of 19 California counties to contract out its public defender's office.

Santa Cruz is one of 19 California counties to contract out its public defender's office.   California Local

As in all California counties, individuals who find themselves charged with a crime in Santa Cruz County can expect to have two people become a major part of their lives, possibly for months or even years until a case is resolved, one way or the other. Those two people are the district attorney, who prosecutes accused criminal offenders, and the public defender, who, as the name implies, defends them. Under the Sixth Amendment to the United States Constitution, every person accused of a crime has a right to be defended by “counsel,” that is, a lawyer.

That right applies whether the accused person has the ability to pay for a lawyer or not—which means that states, counties, and even the federal government will hire a lawyer and pay for that lawyer for defendants who are judged to be “indigent,” or unable to pay.

That wasn’t always the case, however. For more than a century, defendants were on their own, or relied on groups such as New York’s Legal Aid Society to provide free legal representation. Despite the seeming guarantee of counsel contained in the Sixth Amendment, defendants were often left to fend for themselves in court.

The concept of a “public” defender, a defense lawyer whose costs were covered by the government, originated in California, according to the Sixth Amendment Center. It was Clara Foltz, the first woman licensed to practice law in the state, who came up with the idea in 1893, when she first announced her plan for a government-funded “defense office” in a speech at the World’s Fair in Chicago, Illinois. 

And then 20 years passed. Los Angeles County formed California’s—and the United States’—first public defender’s office in 1913, followed eight years later by San Francisco County, and Alameda County five years after that. The movement spread across the country, but even by 1951 only 28 counties nationwide maintained public defenders’ offices, and they were usually small. Los Angeles County had the nation’s largest—with just 15 lawyers. 

It wasn’t until 1963, with the U.S. Supreme Court ruling Gideon v. Wainwright, that the absolute right of a criminal defendant to legal representation was firmly established, and counties essentially found themselves required to provide defense lawyers free of charge for anyone who could not afford one.

Today, the majority of California's 58 counties maintain their own public defenders’ offices. But 19 of those counties have contracts with a private law firm to provide lawyers for indigent clients. Since 1975, Santa Cruz has been one of those counties.

But starting in 2022, the county will take over the public defender’s office, after the Board of Supervisors approved a transition plan that would phase out the private contract. 

In September, 2021, after 60 years without one, the county hired its first public defender. The job went to 47-year-old Heather Rogers, who has worked for about 10 years with Biggam, Christensen and Minsloff, the firm who provided public defense services on a contract basis to Santa Criz County since 1975. Rogers started work in October, but the public defender's office was not expected to become fully operational until June, 2022.

That Biggam firm has locations in both the city of Santa Cruz and in Watsonville. Headed by Chief Public Defender Larry Biggam, the firm's work has been largely without controversy over nearly five decades. Last year, a report by the Santa Cruz County Civil Grand Jury lauded the firm’s 25 lawyers for being “good at what they do,” and noted that “no concerns about the quality of public defense contractor services have come to this Grand Jury’s attention,” or to the attention of five previous civil grand juries that had examined the Santa Cruz County public defender contract system.

But the Grand Jury report nonetheless chided county officials for not paying attention to rising costs incurred and billed to the county by Biggam’s firm.

“Because the county does not track the case assignment data it collects, the county has not noticed that the main contractor’s compensation has risen on average 4.12 percent per year for 20 years while total case assignments for the same period have fallen on average 1.09 percent per year,” the report stated, saying that the lack of oversight had “created a windfall” for the contracted public defender.

Biggam took issue with the report’s finding, according to a report by Michael Todd of the Santa Cruz Sentinel.

“Comparing our costs with other Bay Area public offices would confirm that we have saved the county millions of dollars over the course of our run as the contract defenders for Santa Cruz,” Biggam told the paper.

Nonetheless, in November of 2020, the Supervisors voted 4-1 to let the contract with Biggam’s firm expire in June 2022, according to a report by Sentinel writer Melissa Hartman. Then in May of 2021, the supervisors okayed a plan that would give BCM attorneys the right to join the new public defender’s office as county employees. The county would also appoint a new Chief Public Defender, and all of the attorneys would work out of a county facility. The exact location was not determined in the transition plan. But the new public defender’s office was expected to be fully operational by July 2022. 

The new PD office will function in pretty much the same way that Biggam’s firm operated — which is the same procedure as any public defender’s office. Its lawyers will show up in county courtrooms on a daily basis, and pick up assignments from judges for defendants who, the court finds, cannot pay for their own attorneys.

That assignment happens at a suspect’s arraignment, or initial court appearance after being arrested for an alleged crime. From that point on, Biggam’s public defenders square off against Santa Cruz County prosecutors working for District Attorney Jeff Rosell, who was appointed to the position in 2014, following the death from cancer of longtime DA Bob Lee, who was preparing to start a fourth term in the office when his health began to decline.

Rosell, who had served as a Santa Cruz prosecutor for the previous 20 years, was Lee’s hand-picked successor, and had been the office’s chief deputy of trial operations—effectively the second-highest ranking prosecutor in the county—since 2009, according to his online bio. He previously headed most of of office’s major departments, including the “sexual assault, special prosecution, and general felony units.”

In addition to their primary duties of prosecuting and defending accused Santa Cruz County criminal offenders, the District Attorney and Public Defender’s offices also help to administer other programs within the criminal justice system. For example, the Public Defenders help clients navigate the state’s “Clean Slate Program,” which allows some defendants who have served their sentences to wipe their criminal records clean of convictions — allowing them to get on with their lives minus the stigma of being convicted felons.

The DA’s office recently announced the commencement of a “Veteran’s Treatment Program,” which provides opportunities for military veterans to earn dismissal of minor charges, or have more serious charges reduced by taking part in a program of therapy programs.

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