Friday, March 11, 2005
Western Va. gets funds to create federal public defender's office
Judges from the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals will appoint a candidate to a four-year term.
Congress has approved funding for a federal public defender's office in the Western District of Virginia.
Chief U.S. District Judge James Jones said Thursday that the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals would appoint the federal defender. Jones said he expected that the position will be widely advertised and that the judges would appoint a screening committee to vet candidates.
The judges would then make the appointment, Jones said. The candidate would be required to undergo a background check.
The chief public defender is viewed as a counterpart to the U.S. Attorney, though there are some differences between the positions. The U.S. attorney is appointed by the president and subject to administration changes. Federal public defenders are appointed by federal appeals court judges to serve four-year terms.
As things stand, federal judges in the Western District appoint attorneys to represent indigent defendants.
Dick Carelli, a spokesman for the Administrative Office of the U.S. Courts, said that having a federal public defender is "a more efficient administrative practice" and added that the quality of the legal representation is enhanced when attorneys have specialized in federal law and are working on it full time.
Jones pointed out that even after the federal public defender's office is established, the court will likely still need to rely on court-appointed attorneys in cases with multiple defendants, for example.
The federal public defender is supposed to make about the same salary as the U.S. attorney, which is about $140,000, Carelli said.
Congress did not lay out a budget for the office, Carelli said. That will be determined by the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, he said.
The effort to establish a federal public defender's office in the Western District of Virginia began in January 2004, when four federal judges signed an order amending the district's criminal justice act plan to allow for a public defender. The initiative has since wended its way through the approval process.
The Western District of Virginia, which is headquartered in Roanoke, is one of about 14 of the 94 districts in the nation that does not yet have a public defender's office, Carelli said.
Virginia is divided into two districts. The Western District stretches north to Winchester, south to Danville, east to Lynchburg and west to Lee County. A federal public defender's office was established in the Eastern District of Virginia in 2001.
Jones said he anticipated that the federal public defender would work in Roanoke, with two staff attorneys. The defender would also establish offices in Charlottesville and Abingdon, he said. He anticipated that there would be six assistant public defenders in total, along with investigators, paralegals and support staff.
Jones expected that it would take months to establish the office, but he said he hoped that the chief federal public defender might be hired within six to nine months.