The Monterey County Public Defender and District Attorney's Offices—Explained

PUBLISHED MAY 31, 2021 12:00 A.M.
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Women hold the top positions in Monterey County's judicial system.

Women hold the top positions in Monterey County's judicial system.   Photo by Sgerbic / Wikimedia Commons   Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 4.0 International

In any one of California’s 58 counties, the public defender and the district attorney are perpetual adversaries. The job of the district attorney is to oversee all criminal prosecutions in the county, while the public defender’s job is to provide a defense against criminal charges for any accused offender who cannot afford his or her own lawyer. According to one study, that would mean approximately eight of every 10 criminal defendants is represented by a public defender, or other court-appointed, publicly financed counsel.

But in Monterey County, the current occupants of the public defender and district attorney jobs, as of 2021, have at least one thing in common. Each is the first woman in county history to hold the position.

At the helm of the DA’s office, Jeannine Pacioni won an uncontested election in 2018, after serving as a prosecutor for Monterey County since 1992—with eight years off between 2001 and 2009 to raise her kids, according to a report by Joe Szydlowski of The Californian newspaper. She took over from Dean Flippo, who held the office for 28 years but decided not to seek an eighth term as county’s top prosecutor, at age 77.

Even during her eight-year break, Pacioni was active in the county’s judicial system, serving on the Monterey County Civil Grand Jury, as well as on the boards of the Monterey Rape Crisis Center and Child Abuse Prevention Council. She had also focused on sexual assault cases as a prosecutor, and spearheded efforts to aid victims as part of the county’s Sexual Assault Reponse team.

On the public defender’s side, lawyer Susan Chapman took over the office of 47, including 25 attorneys, in 2016, after the previous public defender, Jim Egar, resigned amid controversy after 10 years in the job. Egar was named Defender of the Year in 2014 by the California Public Defenders Association, but he also clashed with county officials after he filed a 2013 lawsuit alleging that prison inmates in the county system were being denied adequate medical, mental health, and disability services.

“It’s tough to speak truth to power sometimes,” Egar told the County Board of Supervisors as he informed them of his resignation. “But don’t be a public defender if you want to be popular.”

The allegedly unpopular job now falls to Chapman, a private defense lawyer for three decades, before her appointment to the county’s top public defender post. She also served for 15 years in the Monterey County Alternate Public Defender program—the attorneys who represent indigent defendants in cases where the public defender’s office has a conflict of interest (such as when co-defendants in a single case require court-appointed lawyers) or is unable to provide representation for some other reason.

Women in positions of leadership are not unusual in the county’s judicial system. Chapman and Pacioni are joined by Superior Court Presiding Judge Linda Villareal, and a majority of judges and prosecutors in Monterey County are women, according to the Californian report.

The Monterey public defender’s office, which has been in existence for about 30 years, is one of 39 county PD offices in California. The other 19 of the state’s 58 counties contract with outside, private law firms to provide representation for indigent defendants — though Santa Cruz County switches from an outside contract to a county-run public defender's offuce in July 2022. To qualify for representation by a public defender, a defendant must complete a declaration of financial resources, after which a judge decides whether he or she qualifies for a free, court-appointed attorney. But even a public defender isn’t always free. Defendants with some financial resources will be required to pay a portion of their defense costs.

On the other hand, the district attorney prosecutes all cases that come into the county court system, ranging from gang violence, to sexual assault, human trafficking, and a wide range of crimes in between.

In April 2020, Paciori’s office announced that the DA’s office had been charged with enforcing health orders stemming from the COVID-19 pandemic, including restrictions on construction projects, and large public gatherings. Pacioni’s office said at the time that it received numerous complaints about social gatherings such as wedding receptions, which remain prohibited to prevent spread of the novel coronavirus.

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