Public defender set to retire May 1

Harris' decision comes after critical report on the juvenile system

February 20, 2004|By Ivan Penn | Ivan Penn,SUN STAFF

Maryland Public Defender Stephen E. Harris will retire from the post May 1, prompting a nationwide search for the state's third defense chief in more than 30 years, officials said yesterday.

Harris, 66, a one-time boss of the state's first lady, Kendel Ehrlich, and who has run the public defender's office since September 1990, leaves the post on the heels of an American Bar Association report in the fall that criticized the state's system for defending juveniles.

Although the report did not blame Harris' administration, it pointed to numerous problems with public defenders in juvenile cases, including a lack of preparation and failure to provide representation throughout the legal process.

Harris did not return phone calls yesterday.

"He's been a good friend over the years and done a wonderful job," said Sen. President Thomas V. Mike Miller. Miller added that despite financial constraints, Harris has "kept morale high."

A three-member board of trustees that oversees the public defender's office is in the process of seeking Harris' replacement. The board is appointed by the governor but operates independently.

Henry Fawell, a spokesman for Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr., declined to comment about Harris' impending departure, saying that the administration does not comment on personnel matters.

Richard M. Karceski, a board member for the public defender's office for more than a decade, said the panel would "pick a very and most qualified person" to replace Harris and is aggressively seeking candidates. Karceski declined to comment about the circumstances that led to Harris' decision to retire.

Karceski's term on the board ends this year, and the terms for the other two members -- William W. Cahill Jr. and Maurene E. Webb -- expire next year, giving the governor the opportunity to appoint the entire board.

Karceski said he hopes that any decision by the current board would be honored even if governor appoints new members to the panel. He said he does not believe the position should be politicized.

"I thing it is important to keep the agency independent and keep the person at the helm independent and free," Karceski said.

Harris is one of two people to hold the position of the public defender for Maryland, Karceski said. The job was created in 1971.

Harris was chosen for the post after serving as a prosecutor and an assistant public defender. He has served on numerous gubernatorial committees and commissions as well as a member of the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers and the Maryland Criminal Defense Attorneys Association, of which he was president from 1994 to 1995.

Harris has run the public defender's office through troubled years, particularly in Baltimore's judicial system. There has been criticism of the city's courts for a lack of defense lawyers for indigent defendants.

The October report by the American Bar Association highlighted many of the problems that the public defender's office has had not only for juveniles, but also in the adult system.

One of the major problems was insufficient funding for the agency, which has resulted in a shortage of lawyers. The other problems have been related to a need for more training for lawyers in public defender's offices statewide.

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