MAYVILLE - Two candidates remain in consideration for the position of county public defender.
Both were questioned on their qualifications Wednesday by the legislature's Public Safety Committee.
In the case of the county's current public defender, R. Thomas Rankin, the meeting at times felt more like a court proceeding.
OBSERVER Photo by Nicholas L. Dean
Public Defender R. Thomas Rankin, at right, was questioned Wednesday about his qualifications by the Public Safety Committee. Rankin is up for reappointment to the position of county public defender.
"This is not a trial," Rankin said at one point, while being grilled on the extent of his work experience.
Rankin was appointed to the position of public defender last year by the legislature's Republican majority. The legislature is now split between a 12-member Republican caucus and a 12-member caucus of mostly Democrats.
Rankin was put up for reappointment earlier this month. That vote failed to pass, as legislator Bob Duff, R-Sheridan, sided with Democrats against Rankin's reappointment.
Majority Leader Larry Barmore, R-Gerry, is again sponsoring Rankin as a candidate for the position of public defender. Democrats have since named Ned Barone as their choice for the position.
Ultimately, the committee voted 3 to 1 Wednesday against the Rankin resolution. The committee then voted unanimously for the proposal naming Barone public defender - minus the vote of PJ Wendel, R-Lakewood, who was absent from the meeting.
Despite the Rankin proposal having failed in committee, both candidates will likely be considered next week by the full legislature.
Legislator William Coughlin, D-Fredonia, led the lines of questions asked of Rankin and Barone Wednesday.
Coughlin is the county's former public defender. He was reappointed to the position for the final time in 2010. Rankin was appointed public defender at the start of 2011.
"I was unanimously appointed last January by the full legislature," Rankin said Wednesday. "I seek reappointment for another term. ... With regards to my experience ... I would point out that I have argued at the Court of Appeals, the highest court in New York - plus these other appellate divisions and county courts as well as division of parole. I have indeed run a felony jury trial, misdemeanor trials, jury and non-jury."
Coughlin then questioned Rankin on specifics of his work experience - such as that, prior to becoming public defender, Rankin had two jury misdemeanor trials.
"How many felony trials did you do before you became the public defender?" Coughlin asked.
"Jury trials? I had done none," Rankin answered.
Coughlin built to the point that, after being made public defender, Rankin issued a memo stating that he would handle all Class A felonies, homicides and sex crimes.
"Do you believe that having two misdemeanor trials in Jamestown City Court qualified you to do homicides?" he asked. "You appointed yourself to be in charge of homicides and felony crimes without any felony trial experience, correct?"
"At that point, that is correct," Rankin responded.
After additional questions, with a full agenda still before the committee, Bob Duff, R-Sheridan, who chairs the committee, suggested ending the questioning of Rankin - though Coughlin still had points he wanted to make.
"I think we've got our point across," Duff said. "I think we've gone far enough as far as this is concerned. After all, we've got work to do out here and the way it looks, we're not going to get it done."
Coughlin responded by saying that the questions being asked of the candidates get to the heart of what legislators should consider when choosing a public defender.
"These are questions about whether or not he's qualified, whether or not he's qualified and can continue as public defender," Coughlin said.
When questioning Barone, Coughlin asked largely the same line of questions.
Barone answered that he has been an attorney for 24 years, with 90 percent being criminal work. In terms of misdemeanor cases, Barone said he's handled roughly 5,000 - with anywhere from 100 to 150 being jury trials. In terms of felony trials, Barone said he has done close to 100 and approximately six murder jury trials to verdict. Barone also gave a detailed description of his practice to the committee, which is felony practice.
Both Rankin and Coughlin had final statements to make prior to Barone being questioned.
Rankin said that he felt Coughlin had unfairly painted him and alleged that Coughlin was upset over not having been reappointed public defender in 2011. Rankin also said he felt Coughlin's questions were based more on emotion than fact.
Coughlin responded by saying that he took Rankin's remarks as a personal insult, adding that he retired from the county on Jan. 2, 2011 and that he is doing just fine where he works now.
"I have no animosity toward Mr. Rankin, if he did his job," Coughlin said. "I just want a public defender who knows what he's doing. That's all."
After the meeting, Rankin gave additional comments to the OBSERVER regarding the nature of the public defender's position.
"The public defender's job is both as an attorney and as a department head," Rankin said. "And when you look at all the cases we handle, I would say only about 1 percent of those ever go to trial - that we spend most of our time on plea bargains and that's just the nature of our system. Like it or not, that is the system we have. And that the public defender needs to have trial skills but also negotiation skills and administrative skills - leadership skills. And to base the appointment solely on trial experience isn't always going to be the best idea."