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Five months after Diane Bellas became Alameda County’s public defender, a Hayward judge was ready to throw her behind bars.

Judge Roy Hashimoto wanted Assistant Public Defender Alfred Brandi to hand over copies of jury questionnaires at the end of a 2000 murder trial because he feared that the jurors’ answers would become public. But by then, Brandi had scribbled notes on the documents, and Bellas argued they were legally off limits.

Hashimoto didn’t see it that way and ordered Bellas be taken to jail. But she never saw the inside of a cell because the First District Court of Appeal took her side.

“I think that she is one of the best public defenders in the state,” Hashimoto said recently. “I guess her office was right. What can I say?”

In her five years as public defender, Bellas has continued to take tough, principled stances — not only on behalf of lawyers in her office but on behalf of clients as well.

Bellas butted heads with Presiding Judge William McKinstry in 2001 when her office refused to let court commissioners hear their clients’ misdemeanor traffic cases. Bellas argued that her clients’ constitutional rights were being jeopardized because judges wanted to foist a less-glamorous job on the commissioners. After six months the judges caved.

“I think that, perhaps more in the past, public defenders were willing to cooperate with the other [court players],” said Judge Allan Hymer, a former colleague of Bellas’ who supervised the courthouse at the center of the flap. “That was one of her decisions that I disagreed with. I respect her for it.”

Bellas is praised for making shrewd decisions to avoid layoffs, but a budget crunch has kept her from achieving some of her goals for the office, including reducing caseloads and expanding the staff.

She also has been criticized for not hiring and promoting enough African-Americans, who represent a large number of her clients.

And although Bellas has brought a compassionate touch to the office’s management, her sensitivity can cut both ways — her warmth is welcome, but critics say Bellas’ over-sensitivity has chilled open dialogue in the office.

Bellas, 52, says she is passionate about her office’s mission to represent the poor. Standing up to the bench is part of her job description.

“You don’t take on this job unless you are prepared to take on the same battles as you would if you were in court,” Bellas said.

“It is very important the public defender take a very public, if not popular, stance.”

PASSION IS A VIRTUE

When the board was weighing a replacement for outgoing Public Defender Jay Gaskill in 1999, Bellas was the clear choice, said Gail Steele, the president of the board of supervisors.

She had handled six death penalty cases, trying two, and handled nearly every other assignment in the office. She had supervised the mental health unit, felony trial staff, the Oakland branch office and the Berkeley branch office. In 1999 she was president of the California Public Defenders Association.

“She was well supported by everyone in the office. She was known around the state and known around the county,” Steele said.

Bellas is a warm, effusive “true believer” who cares deeply about her office’s charge to represent poor criminal defendants. When county supervisors weigh public defender budget cuts, Bellas is known to give moving speeches about the importance of defending the poor.

“She is very passionate. It’s unusual,” Steele said. Bellas has explained to county leaders that “if you didn’t have a public defender it would be a different country.”

That empathy extends to her staff as well, attorneys say. Bellas gives out hugs and speaks as warmly about new attorney hires as she would about family members.

“I am who I am,” Bellas said. “I love my colleagues. I’m not ashamed to say it.”

But Bellas’ compassion has been put to the test. Despite managing to open a new Oakland branch office, her biggest challenge has been avoiding the budget ax.

Annually, the office does intake on 54,000 cases. But over the past couple of years the office has seen its resources dwindle. In 2002-03, the office had 203 staff members, including attorneys. But through attrition and subsequent budget cuts, that number now stands at 186.

“Wish list” goals like expanding the office, decreasing caseloads and allowing supervisors to supervise — instead of carrying full caseloads — have taken a back seat to saving jobs.

“Right now, the budget challenges are so great that if I am able to keep us afloat, I will consider myself to be very successful,” Bellas said.

Over the past few years, public safety departments, including the district attorney’s office, the probation department and the sheriff’s departments, have had to make dramatic spending cuts. Bellas dealt with the problem by eliminating vacant positions and leaving top-tier management posts unfilled. For example, the No. 2 attorney in the office, Harold Friedman, has been serving as chief investigator as well since the previous one retired.

But her most dramatic cost-cutting move may also have been her most creative. In December, Bellas created a five-attorney alternate defender division that is intended to cut the amount of money that the county spends on outside attorneys when the public defender has a conflict of interest.

Although conflict counsel costs –– which are paid by a contract between the county and the Alameda County Bar Association –– are separate from the PD budget, Bellas still takes heat when her office conflicts out of too many cases because the county has to pay outside lawyers more.

While the new five-attorney division can’t take on the full load of conflicts work yet, the unit should drive down costs in the long run, Bellas said. The PD still sends most of its conflicts work to the bar association panel, she pointed out.

Setting up the alternate defender division was a shrewd financial move, said former PD Gaskill. Bellas staffed the new office with some of her most experienced attorneys, and by doing so probably preserved those positions from future cuts.

“I’m proud of her ability to think creatively,” Gaskill said recently.

The public defender is in a tough spot when county leaders criticize spending on outside counsel, he added.

“The one thing you can’t say is why you conflict out,” Gaskill said. “You can’t defend yourself, and people on the other side are free to criticize, but you have to sit and take it.”

The most vocal critics of the alternate defender have been attorneys for the bar association program who depend on income from conflicts cases. They complain that Bellas made the decision abruptly, without notifying the bar or even the staff attorneys who were transferred to the division. They also argue that the panel can handle conflicts cases more cheaply over the long term.

“It hit us, all of a sudden, like a ton of bricks,” said James Giller, who chairs the bar association conflicts panel. The bar, he said, is studying the impact of the move and will respond accordingly.

Giller said the conflicts panel can handle cases — including death penalty cases — in a cost-effective way.

‘HERDING LIONS’

Supporters say that Bellas’ warmth, idealism and humility are her best qualities.

“Her weakness is that she does not self-promote,” said Deputy Public Defender Margo George, noting that Bellas doesn’t fire off staff memos to brag about how she managed to save jobs during budget negotiations.

But a half-dozen current and former public defenders interviewed for this story –– even ones who said they were supporters of Bellas –– cited her sensitivity as a reason for demanding anonymity. Most would not discuss specific problems within the office, saying that Bellas had retaliated against her critics. They say Bellas’ thin skin has chilled open dialogue in the office.

One Bellas fan acknowledged that Bellas is perceived as over-sensitive.

“In some ways, that’s her best quality. She wants people to be happy,” said Natasha Minsker, a former defender who now works for the Administrative Office of the Courts. Minsker emphasized that Bellas doesn’t retaliate against critics.

In an interview, Bellas said that she was unaware that staff attorneys thought she was thin-skinned but adds that she does care what people think.

“Criticism directed against me is personal,” Bellas said, adding that she has an open-door policy and doesn’t punish internal critics. “Sometimes you have to evaluate yourself personally.”

Some attorneys say criticism of Bellas’ management style is overblown.

Bellas is open-minded and backs attorneys when they make tough decisions in court, George said. “I am somewhat saddened to hear that people feel that way.”

Another supporter said that Bellas’ reaction to criticism might be misunderstood.

“When she is hurt by things, she lets people know that in ways that bosses haven’t,” said Susan Walsh, a juvenile division supervisor.

“When you have 120 very independent people you are not going to have a lot of the kumbaya thing going on,” Walsh said.

Gaskill agreed that rank-and-file attorneys are hard to please — the best defense attorneys are, by nature, anti-authority and aggressive, he said.

“It’s not like herding cats, it’s like herding lions,” he said.

Bellas and past public defenders have been criticized for not hiring more African- American attorneys and for not putting enough blacks in management posts. Although African-Americans make up a large part of the office’s client base, the total number of attorneys and managers has changed little over the years.

Of the 119 attorneys who work at the office 17 are African-American, 12 are Hispanic and eight are Asian or Pacific Islander.

Bellas said that of the 24 people hired since she came on the job, 10 are minorities — four African-Americans, four Asians or Pacific Islanders, and two Hispanics. A few minority attorneys are not counted in those totals because they are multiracial and did not identify themselves as part of a particular ethnic group, Bellas’ office added.

But there are no African-Americans in leadership posts. While two black men –– Assistant Public Defenders George Higgins and Ralph Crofton –– have been managers during Bellas’ watch, they have since been rotated to other duties.

“This should be addressed,” said Howard Moore, an Oakland attorney who represented three black public defender investigators who alleged that the county hired and promoted African-American investigators less often than whites under former PD Gaskill. The county settled the suit out of court.

“No one is asking for special favors or handouts,” Moore added.

Others point out that Bellas has made some strides but is handcuffed by the county’s ongoing budget woes and other rules. Tammy Yuen, the public defender’s office attorney assigned to deal with diversity issues, has been forced to scale back those efforts and take on more cases instead because of cutbacks.

Yuen noted that unlike the district attorney –– or San Francisco public defender for that matter –– Alameda County PD candidates are required to take a civil service exam. And the office can hire only from the top-ranked candidates.

“It is one of the main restrictions that we have,” Yuen said.

Bellas said her office represents the community that it serves, adding that race is just one of many factors that she takes into consideration when she hires attorneys.

“We look for the best candidates who are going to be generally committed to the work,” Bellas said.

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