Fairfax County's top public defender has resigned after 10 months on the job, saying she does not have adequate resources to defend the poor in Virginia's wealthiest county.
In her short tenure, Joanmarie I. Davoli, 42, has made huge strides for the Fairfax public defender's office, according to numerous defense lawyers. She obtained Internet access and e-mail for her lawyers, persuaded Fairfax judges to reduce her lawyers' staggering caseload -- last year, the 20 lawyers defended 8,452 clients -- and refurbished a cramped and crumbling office.
But, Davoli said yesterday, "I can't do anything else to improve this office under the current administration," a reference to the newly formed Indigent Defense Commission, whose executive director is a former Fairfax public defender, Richard C. Goemann.
The General Assembly started the commission last year in response to a barrage of criticism over the years about some of the lowest pay in the country and minimal training for public defenders and court-appointed lawyers. The commission was installed with members diverse in experience and geography, and requirements were instituted for training and certification of court-appointed lawyers in the state.
Davoli said the commission has merely beefed up the bureaucracy in Richmond without significantly affecting the delivery of legal services to criminal defendants in Fairfax. Davoli said she continually has had to fight with the commission for such things as software to track her office's cases, reimbursement when office members spend their own money and more lawyers to handle the caseload.
"There's nothing I can personally do to force the Indigent Defense Commission to treat us fairly," Davoli said. "My career has been dedicated to standing up for justice, and I don't want to work for an organization that isn't being fair to Fairfax County."
Goemann responded with a statement and declined to respond to Davoli's specific concerns. "Inadequate funding" for those who can't afford lawyers, Goemann said, "has been a long-standing, statewide problem, not limited to Fairfax. I understand Ms. Davoli's frustration and concern in her call for local and state policy-makers to properly fund indigent defense services in Virginia."
But Davoli did not direct her frustrations at the legislature. "The legislature is allocating money," she said. "The Indigent Defense Commission has chosen to allocate that to its administration, not to its attorneys in its offices carrying heavy caseloads."
Steven D. Benjamin, an appointed commission member who is on the board of directors of the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers, said he was sorry to see Davoli go. "I share her frustration and regret the loss of a very fine attorney and administrator," Benjamin said. "Unfortunately, the commission has just recently learned of the specifics of her complaints. I am trying to determine what we should do to address those very concerns."
Although Davoli successfully agitated to get Internet access, e-mail and Internet legal research for her lawyers, she was not able to persuade her bosses in Richmond to devise a way to track the thousands of cases her office handles. Davoli and several other staff members tried yesterday to use the commission's software to show how many cases her lawyers have today, the busiest day of the week in Fairfax County Circuit Court, and in which courtrooms the cases would be heard. No one could do it.
Instead, the office requires the lawyers to write all of their upcoming court dates in day planners, with one for juvenile court, one for general district court and one for circuit court. "We are in the home of technology for the entire commonwealth," Davoli said. "I don't think we should be working with daily calendars.
"It makes practicing law in Fairfax miserable," Davoli continued. "It means we miss cases. If a court calls me up and wants to know where an attorney is, I can't tell them."
She said 10 months of arguing for help from Richmond "is a long time. It's a lot of clients, it's a lot of people's lives. I shouldn't have to keep arguing for this."
Davoli said she also had to devise a system of filing and monitoring appeals of Fairfax convictions because some appeals were being dismissed when they weren't filed on time. She said the commission has provided no guidance on handling appeals.
Davoli also said the commission has increased its staff in Richmond from four or five employees to 22, "and they're also paid a lot better than the attorneys here." The starting salary for a public defender is $41,000, with senior defenders making up to $55,000. The office's one deputy is paid $62,000.
Davoli, who was paid a salary of $86,000, said she does not have another job lined up. Today is her last day on the job.
Alexander Levay Jr., a Leesburg defense lawyer and commission member, said Davoli did not make her concerns known to the commission's appointed members before resigning. "She certainly made a great amount of progress in a short amount of time," he said.