Nevada County’s Public Defender and District Attorney, Explained

PUBLISHED AUG 6, 2021 12:00 A.M.
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How the two top public lawyers in Nevada County do their jobs.

How the two top public lawyers in Nevada County do their jobs.   Daniel Bone / Pixabay   Simplified Pixabay License

Under the Sixth Amendment to the United States Constitution, everyone accused of a crime in this country is entitled to “have the assistance of counsel for his defense.” In other words, as anyone who watches cop shows on TV has heard repeated over and over again, “you have the right to an attorney.” But that right is not as absolute as the legal fiction on television makes it sound. It wasn’t until 1963, in a landmark case known as Gideon v. Wainwright, that the U.S. Supreme Court affirmed that, indeed, criminal defendants have a Constitutional right to be represented by a lawyer.

The concept of a “public defender,” however, had been around for years, in theory if not always in practice. The first woman to practice law in California, Clara Shortridge Foltz, is also credited with founding the public defender movement, first articulating in 1893 her idea for a government-funded “defense office” that would provide lawyers for defendants unable to afford one of their own.

Removing a Roadblock to Representation

The right to an attorney is now long-established, with all 58 of California’s counties either operating their own public defender’s offices or, in the case of 19 counties, contracting with private law firms to provide representation for defendants who cannot hire a lawyer. (That number drops to 18 in July 2022, when Santa Cruz County inaugurates a government-run public defender’s office.) 

But obstacles still remained to securing a lawyer for defendants who lacked the cash. California removed one of those obstacles on July 1, 2021, when a new law known as the Families Over Fees Act took effect. Governor Gavin Newsom signed the bill in September of 2020. Along with ending 22 other fees that defendants in the California legal system were required to pay, the bill relieved indigent defendants of the $50 fee required for use of a public defender.

In Nevada County, that means criminal defendants will no longer have to pony up for the services of chief public defender Keri Klein, or any of the six deputy public defenders in her office — including one located in the Truckee Courthouse. Klein—who was appointed to the office in 2016 after nine-year veteran of the office Don Lown retired—and her other five deputies are based out of the Nevada City Courthouse, at 201 Church Street in Nevada City.

Klein began her career in the Nevada County public defender’s office in 2007, after serving four years as a deputy public defender in nearby Yolo County.

The process for acquiring a public defender begins at an accused offender’s arraignment, which is the first court appearance after an arrest. During that initial court date, a defendant who requests that the county provide a lawyer will be asked to fill out a series of financial forms to establish “indigent” status—that is, the inability to pay for a private attorney. 

But Nevada County’s public defender’s office also encourages people who have been arrested to reach out to a lawyer even before the arraignment hearing. Individuals in custody have access to a direct line to the public defender’s office. But don’t expect to talk to a public defender right away. Attorneys in the PD’s office spend most of their working hours in court. They tend to be at their office desks early in the morning, and again toward the end of the workday.

‘Wholly Untrue’ Public Defender Stereotypes

On the Nevada County public defender’s website, the office aims to dispel what it calls several “wholly untrue stereotypes” of the attorneys who work as public defenders, who “have long suffered from a public perception as second rate lawyers who couldn't get a ‘real’ job and had to ‘settle’ for working for starvation wages as a deputy public defender.”

In fact, the Nevada County PD’s office says, public defenders are “some of the brightest, best educated, and most dedicated lawyers there are. The Nevada County Public Defender's Office is made up of people who want to practice nothing but criminal law. They don't do divorces or ‘chase ambulances’ or write wills. They come from the finest law schools in the country.”

And because lawyers in the public defender’s office are paid a salary, they have no concern with racking up “billable hours.” They focus, the site says, only on winning the best outcomes for their clients.

While criminal defendants will always have a lawyer defending them in court, thanks to the public defender system, they also face the formidable opposition of the District Attorney’s office. Since 2006, the Nevada County DA was Cliff Newell, who ended his 15-year tenure as the county’s top prosecutor with his retirement on July 10, 2021. Newell, who began working for the county in 1999 as a probation officer, followed DA Mike Ferguson, who served for 16 years in the post. 

In June of 2021, the Nevada County Board of Supervisors, by a narrow 3-2 vote, picked Jesse Wilson, a prosecutor in nearby El Dorado County, to serve as the new D.A., on an interim basis. Before moving to El Dorado County,  Wilson served six years as a deputy D.A. in Nevada County.

At least in terms of the resources made available to the two adversarial public law offices, it’s a mismatch. In Nevada County’s 2021/2022 budget, the district attorney’s office was allocated $5,427,103. But the public defender’s budget was set at $2,843,785. The DA’s office employs 10 prosecutors under the auspices of the district attorney, six assigned to felony cases, three to misdemeanors and one to the Truckee office.

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