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MARTINEZ — Contra Costa County Public Defender David Coleman III keeps a yellowed, 1975 edition of the Richmond Independent in his office. On the cover is a picture of Coleman as a rookie deputy with a buoyant Afro. The story is about how budget cuts may force the PD to shun some low-level cases. Now the Independent is long gone and Coleman, the young defender in the photo, runs the office. But for the first time in 30 years, the public defender’s office is once again mulling whether its caseload has become too costly. “We may have to reject certain services,” Coleman said, adding that his office is only in the early stage of such discussions. “This is the first time that has been such a realistic possibility.” Coleman, the first African-American to head a county public defender office in California, thinks about legacy more than usual these days. After five years under his leadership, rank-and-file attorneys report that Coleman has increased diversity, improved internal training, established health benefits for temporary attorneys and backed his staff in high-profile battles, including a historic win before the U.S. Supreme Court. But some critics say those accomplishments are overshadowed by Coleman’s leadership, which they charge has sunk morale. Coleman keeps the staff in the dark on many issues and refuses to delegate power, they say. To make matters worse, Coleman often wonders aloud whether he could have done more with his life than become the PD �� a charge Coleman, 58, calls a misunderstanding. “After 31 years, I am still excited about the work,” the public defender said in an interview. “It’s difficult for me to imagine my life any way else.” In his three decades as a defender, Coleman has tried every kind of case: from drunken driving to death penalty. As a defense lawyer, Coleman charmed juries with genteel sophistication. Even though he no longer tries cases, Coleman still exudes a trial lawyer’s dramatic flair. He speaks slowly, and his sentences are sprinkled with verbal flourishes. When asked about rumors he was not satisfied with his career path, he replied: “I hear people saying that, and I rush to explain the larger world view.” While he loves his job, he believes that people should take stock of their aspirations. “That does not prevent me from saying that I envision myself personally doing something else,” he said. Beneath the philosophical speech, the West Virginia-raised, Ivy League educated Coleman is a dyed-in-the-wool criminal defense lawyer, one supporter said. “He is devoted to clients �� that there should be vigorous representation,” said former Public Defender Charles James, who backed Coleman’s bid to succeed him in the job. The county Board of Supervisors appointed Coleman, then a chief assistant, in 1999. Soon after he took the helm, some attorneys left the office at least in part because they were rankled by his leadership style. Since then, even critics acknowledge that things have settled down, and Coleman has chalked up several achievements. The public defender created an in-house training program. The office also began offering health benefits to temporary attorneys who fill in when full-timers are on leave. Up until then, those lawyers worked with no benefits �� a situation that Coleman called “shameful.” The office has also become more diverse. During the past five years, the PD has hired 19 permanent attorneys. A dozen are minorities, and 13 are women. Of the 39 temporary attorneys Coleman has hired, 19 are people of color and 26 are women. Compared to other counties, “I know that these statistics would knock someone’s socks off,” Coleman said. Supporters, such as longtime Deputy Public Defender Ronald Boyer, note that Coleman has maintained longstanding office traditions such as aggressively taking cases to trial, giving lawyers autonomy and using vertical defense. That means the public defender who first handles a case keeps it until it’s complete. In other urban counties, a defendant may be represented by three or four different attorneys as the case goes through the system. “I think the office is going in the right direction,” said John “Jack” Funk, an office veteran who praised Coleman for upgrading the public defender’s technology. Some other public defender offices in the region, such as Solano County, are “five to 10″ years behind Contra Costa, he said. Contra Costa County DA Bob Kochly agrees. “The public defender’s office in this county is known for aggressive stances in cases and not being afraid to take a case to trial,” said Kochly. “Other counties can be described as too clubby.” Over the years, Coleman and his predecessor James built their staff in part by luring talented law school students they had met in class. Coleman, who taught courses at Boalt Hall School of Law for 20 years, only stopped in 2002 so he could spend more time with his family. Coleman has continued the office tradition of backing lawyers on tough legal issues. Last year, alternate defender Roberto Najera successfully argued Stogner v. California, 539 U.S. 607, before the U.S. Supreme Court. The court’s opinion in the case forced the DA to end its practice of prosecuting many decades-old sex abuse cases. Najera, who tried the case while he was battling colon cancer, deserves all the credit for the court victory, public defenders agreed. But if Najera had been working for another public defender’s office, or a law firm for that matter, it’s unlikely that he would have handled the case. Typically, public and private law offices hand off Supreme Court cases to specialists, Coleman said. Coleman also supported — though he did not initiate — the office’s unsuccessful attempt to block rookie Contra Costa County Judge Cheryl Mills from hearing criminal cases. Public defenders who argued cases in her courtroom alleged she was biased against defense attorneys. Solano County Superior Court Judge Scott Kays ruled in Mills’ favor in February. While the Contra Costa County DA’s office forbids its prosecutors from mounting such politically sensitive challenges without formal approval from the front office, Coleman says he keeps a looser rein. “I am proud of the fact that the challenge to Judge Mills was not a decision that I made,” Coleman said. “I am proud that our office supports our lawyers in their decisions.” Mills declined to discuss the incident. But the office has drawn complaints. Topping the list is Coleman’s management style, which a few people say has driven down morale. He has hidden the ball on budget issues and refuses to delegate, critics say. “For a while, there wasn’t anybody who David would let do management issues,” said Craig Peters, a former Contra Costa County public defender who left the office shortly after Coleman took the helm. Peters now works for the San Francisco public defender’s office. “It’s not because he wants to do all of the work; he wants to hold all of the marbles,” Peters said. Coleman doesn’t even have an official second-in-command, other attorneys note. Instead there are two chief assistants, William Veale and Suzanne Chapot. While there was a similar setup when James headed the office, James made it clear that then-chief assistant Coleman was the second-in-command. Coleman counters that he hands off more tasks than he did when he started �� other people help with recruiting now, for example. But he did not give a clear answer about why he doesn’t have a No. 2, nor was he clear about why he hasn’t groomed a successor. “Sometimes my mind wanders to that subject,” Coleman said, noting that many office veterans are closing in on retirement. “I certainly think that it’s time for a new generation of leaders in the office.” Deciding how much information to share with staff is a delicate task, Coleman explained. If he chooses to share the worst-case budget scenario, for example, he risks scaring them unnecessarily. If he withholds the information and then has to make big cuts, he will be accused of keeping the staff in the dark, Coleman said. Often he chooses to be more cautious with information, the PD said. Attorneys “have tough enough jobs doing these cases,” he said. One defender, who asked to remain anonymous, defended Coleman. “Certain groups are happier under his leadership than under Charlie James,” said the lawyer, who noted that some disgruntled attorneys were people who had been affected when Coleman changed part-time and leave policies. Kochly has been impressed. “David has done a good job,” the DA says. In some ways, Coleman has a tougher job than himself, Kochly said. Unlike prosecutors, who tend to respect the chain of command, public defenders are more anti-authority. Coleman also has to deal with an employee union, whereas prosecutors are not unionized. “He’s done a good job administering people who don’t want to be administered.” Oscar Bobrow, president of the public defenders’ union in Contra Costa County, blasts Coleman for dropping the ball on the office’s ongoing legal battle challenging the racial composition of county juries. For years, the Contra Costa public defender has fought court battles to prove that the county has failed to give black defendants a fair trial because there are too few African-Americans in felony jury pools. There are still issues that have not been addressed by the appellate courts, said Bobrow, who has tried cases that raise the jury pool issue. Bobrow also chides Coleman for not raising his voice against the county’s moves to put even more court buildings �� such as the recently completed family law center �� in Martinez. Most of the county’s growth has been in areas with more minority jurors, such as Richmond and Pittsburg. Coleman says the higher courts have stalled the jury pool challenge for now with unfavorable rulings. However, the office continues to champion the issue of race and juries. Recently, the U.S. Supreme Court took up another case that began with the Contra Costa County public defender’s office, Johnson v. California, which questioned the use of peremptory challenges to spike minorities from jury pools. The high court dismissed the case on a jurisdictional issue in May. “In the meantime, we have been fighting skirmishes about peremptory challenges,” Coleman said. And while the county continues to neglect its court facilities in the western part of the region, Coleman helped persuade the county to pour $1 million into upgrading its Richmond office, he said. These days, when he looks at a picture on his office wall of aging Greensboro civil rights pioneers, Coleman says he thinks about the passage of time. After years of wearing his hair closely cropped, it’s longer now, and flecked with gray. Coleman wants his replacement to be a little like him: a passionate trial lawyer who knows death penalty cases inside and out. “You demonstrate how much you care by how willing you are to go to trial,” he said. “You can’t assign a capital case unless you know what it’s like to hear a jury say ‘guilty’ several times.”

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