For Miles Gerety, the decision was about both quantity and quality.
A little over three years ago, when he took over the state Public Defender’s Office in Danbury, there were six lawyers. Today, that number is four. And so Gerety has decided to retire, effective May 1, rather than to continue to make do with less.
"We are all running around like crazy," said Gerety, 62, a Redding resident. "What I’m upset about is these budget cuts are impinging on my ability to provide the best possible representation…. I just think the cuts mean the [state office of] Public Defender Services is now being understaffed. There is a breaking point."
Gerety, who has spent 25 years as a public defender, plans to chip in after he retires, taking on individual cases as an assigned counsel, a role that used to be called a special public defender. But he first plans to spend the summer sailing across the Atlantic Ocean.
His predecessor as Danbury’s top public defender, Robert Field, explained that "Miles is a bit like Don Quixote. He doesn’t really like working within systems."
But he’s worked in the public defender’s system long enough and well enough to have earned the respect of his peers and colleagues, and for them to take his staffing complaints seriously.
"It was devastating for me when I received the news he was leaving after all these years," said New Haven Public Defender Thomas Ullmann. "He has a really great reputation. He always fought the good fight and protected his clients’ rights. He’s the kind of guy you want to be in the public defender’s office. He knew everything about his clients, and their history."
Gerety’s complaints might sound familiar.
Two years ago, as the state wrestled with the same budget crisis that’s ongoing today, public defenders said spending cuts would push caseloads for lawyers too high and make it difficult for them to meet their constitutional and ethical obligations to Connecticut’s poorest citizens.
At the time, the Office of Chief Public Defender, whose roughly 200 lawyers that handle more than 90,000 cases a year, had been asked to cut its two-year, $128 million budget by about $9.6 million, or 7.5 percent.
In July 2011, the office announced plans to cut 30 independent contractors and 12 temporary employees, about half of that total being lawyers. At the same time, a proposal was announced to shed more than 30 full-time positions through layoffs and attrition.
"If the caseloads are too big, our people cannot spend the time they need to spend on a case and with their clients,” Deputy Chief Public Defender Brian Carlow said at the time. "Our biggest initial concern is cases not moving as quickly as they can when people are locked up.”
Although lost positions have been replaced in some judicial districts, Gerety said things have not improved in Danbury. He was upset when he learned late last year that one of Danbury’s public defenders would be transferred full time to juvenile court. "I had hoped he would be replaced," Gerety said. But Gerety found out around Christmastime that would not be the case.
In bigger judicial districts, there are different courthouses for major crimes and less serious offenses. But in Danbury, both are tried in one courthouse, requiring Gerety and his lawyers to handle all types of cases.
It’s difficult to be "doing a motor vehicle case and two home invasions" right in a row, said Gerety. "I can’t do either justice."
Gerety focused on major cases in Bridgeport, where he worked for two decades before coming to head up the Danbury office. He notes that he has been involved in 27 murder trials. "I spent my whole career trying big cases. I miss the focus of the serious cases. That’s what I’m good at," Gerety said. "I find it easier to do some serious case than a dozen different minor cases."
Gerety said he is not worried solely about his own staff. He said statewide, attempts to fill vacancies at regional public defenders’ offices have been delayed or denied.
But the state’s chief public defender, Susan O. Storey, does not agree that defendants’ legal rights are in jeopardy in Danbury or anywhere else. "The [Danbury] office will absolutely be resourced to meet their needs," Storey said. "I’m sorry to see Miles go. I’m sure that we’ll find a person with lots of experience to head that office."
Storey added that she has access to the caseload statistics of every public defender and reviews it whenever there is an opening. When a replacement for Gerety is found, she will discuss Danbury staffing needs with that person. "If that office needs more help, that office will get it," Storey said.
Statewide, she said, if the proposed budget is approved, the public defenders’ offices will be fine. "Everybody needs to be careful to use their resources wisely," Storey said.
‘You Get Concerned’
But current and former public defenders say they understand where Gerety is coming from.
"I understand his concerns about some of the potential budget cuts in Danbury," Ullmann said. "We are all worried about these things … because our commitment is to the clients in presenting the most professional and responsible defense we can put together. Any time you hear about budget cuts, you get concerned."
Ullmann said he has not had any staffing cuts in his office, which serves a judicial district with separate courthouses for major and minor crimes. "I know they are talking about them … but it hasn’t trickled down," Ullmann said. "I worry about it, because we all want to do the best for our clients."
One issue that concerns Ullmann is whether there will continue to be enough money to pay expert defense witnesses in a major case. "I haven’t been turned down" yet, Ullmann said. If that ever happens, he said, he would make a constitutional argument to a judge that his client’s rights were being violated.
Former New Britain Public Defender Kenneth Simon said one of the reasons he retired in 2011 was because four of his staffers, including three lawyers, were let go. "It was very sad," he said, to have to lay off those people.
Simon said it was more difficult for the remaining staff to do its job following those cuts. But he doesn’t think any client received poor representation. "It’s a very hard job. It’s very stressful," Simon said of being the head public defender in a judicial district.
Milford Public Defender David Egan said as of right now there are no cuts planned for his office. Egan said the biggest problem in Milford – with both the state’s attorney’s and public defender’s offices – is that even if more lawyers were hired, there is no place to put them because of the building’s limitations. He said one of his lawyers sits in an open area, behind a secretary and an investigator.
"If you give us more people, we have nowhere to put them," said Egan.
Several of his peers say they doubt that the state has heard the last of Miles Gerety.
He is a "very bright guy and a very capable public defender with a lot of energy," said Simon. "He is absolutely dedicated to the defense of the indigent."
Field, the former head public defender in Danbury, predicted that when Gerety strikes out on his own, as assigned counsel or in private practice, he will likely break new legal ground at some point.
"He sees things as they ought to be, and doesn’t merely accept things the way they are. He is always reaching for that elusive star," Field said. "It is difficult being an idealist and an iconoclast in a system that throws such a really large caseload in your direction each and every day.
"I think he will really enjoy handling one case at a time in private practice or as assigned counsel, and he will probably be instrumental in creating new case law that hopefully will help future defendants get through a very difficult legal system," Field said.
Gerety envisions himself taking cases all over the state, and not just in the Danbury area. He also plans to try his hand in federal court. "I spent three-and-a-half years here" in Danbury, he said. "I’m 62. I don’t want this to be the final chapter in my legal career." •