Retiring Broward Public Defender Howard Finkelstein is staying put until after elections in August 2020, but three Broward lawyers have already have stepped up to replace him. Assistant Public Defender Ruby Green is the latest to enter the running, joining Chief Assistant Public Defender Gordon Weekes and Fort Lauderdale criminal defense lawyer Jim Lewis this week.
Now that two public defenders have raised their hands, Finkelstein’s main concern is avoiding office politics.
In a recent email to staff, Finkelstein explained that this was the first time two public defenders have run for the same position and offered a reassurance that the office “will not turn into a political battlefield.” According to the email, Finkelstein felt his predecessor Al Schreiber was overly political, enlisting employees to work for candidates and encouraging campaign contributions.
“When I took office, I felt very strongly that the Law Office of the Public Defender should not be a political machine and the employees should not feel compelled to participate in politics, other than exercising their constitutional right to vote,” Finkelstein wrote.
Finkelstein, who’s been in charge since 2005, has prohibited campaigning during working hours in fear it could impact clients. That said, he stands by his 2017 endorsement of Weekes.
“If I ran against Gordon, I’d vote for Gordon,” Finkelstein told the Daily Business Review.
Here’s a rundown of the candidates so far.
Ruby Green, who announced her candidacy last week, joined the public defender’s office in 2012. She’s served as lead felony attorney, chief of county court and misdemeanor division supervisor, and believes the office needs a revamp from the inside out.
“The clients, the staff, the attorneys, they all deserve change,” Green said. “I think that I would be the best person to make changes.”
According to Green, public defenders should spend more time in the community, as much of the public doesn’t know about the work they do or how they can benefit from it. Green also hopes to reduce staff turnover and trigger criminal justice reform by collaborating with agencies focused on housing, substance abuse programs and mental health treatment for clients in need.
“A good defense includes connecting indigent defendants with resources in the community, which reduces recidivism and which, in turn, reduces crime.”
Green has held many bar association positions, including treasurer of the Broward County Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers and president of the T.J. Reddick Bar Association.
She’s also not afraid to address the elephant in the room.
“I think that a lot of people are going to talk about my age, and I just want people to know that when they say things like that they’re putting people in a box,” Green said. ”I’m always ahead of my time and ahead of the game. And when it comes time for someone to lead effectively, people are not going to look at my age, they’re going to see what I’ve been able to do.”
Gordon Weekes announced his candidacy in 2017, soon after Finkelstein announced his retirement.
“I’m a lifer at the public defender’s office,” said Weekes, who’s served there since 1997, discounting a one-year stint in private practice, which he said reminded him of why he should go back.
Passionate about championing children, Weekes hopes to reform the juvenile justice system.
“Every time you put handcuffs on a child, especially for a minor offense, you are altering the arc of where they could potentially be because you just told them something about their worth,” Weekes said.
That’s not to say kids aren’t going to make mistakes, Weekes stressed.
“They are,” Weekes said. “But we need to also put into context their mistakes and make sure that we do not alter their lives so they can never be productive.”
A good public defender, according to Weekes, recognizes what clients are going through.
“I’ve been pulled over by police officers, I’ve been profiled,” Weekes said. “For many years as the chief assistant of the juvenile division, I used to have long dreadlocks. When I was in that courthouse with my suit and tie, I was acceptable to folks.”
That changed on the weekends, or the moment he took off his suit and tie, according to Weekes. For that reason among others, Weekes aims to find innovative ways to approach the criminal justice system and reforming offenders.
“If we could arrest ourselves out of all the ills of society, we would have already done that,” Weekes said. “That doesn’t always work.”
Jim Lewis did not respond to a request for comment before deadline, but has previously told the Daily Business Review that the public defender role is his dream job, as it would allow him to work on rehabilitating juvenile defendants, drug offenders and helping those with mental illnesses. Lewis has worked in criminal law for more than 38 years, and has also served as a prosecutor.
Whoever takes over will have a mammoth task on their hands, according to Finkelstein.
“People don’t understand how large a ship this is. It is 200 people, 140 lawyers. It’s a constantly revolving door because we are chronically underfunded,” Finkelstein said. “I watched Gordon and Ruby come in as bright-eyed, bushy-tailed, brand-new public defenders, and I’ve watched them both grow.”