THE VIRGINIA GENERAL Assembly created the state's new Indigent Defense Commission last year to finally get a grip on the woeful quality of counsel the state provides to poor people accused of crimes. Despite some early successes, the commission ran into real trouble. Earlier this summer, the public defender in Fairfax County, Joanmarie I. Davoli, resigned in frustration, complaining of inadequate support from the commission staff in Richmond. More recently, the commission asked for -- and received -- the resignation of its executive director, Richard C. Goemann. While the precise reason for this latter move remains murky, commissioners appear to have been concerned by the growth of the Richmond staff and commission expenditures, while scarce indigent defense funds were not making it to the field.
Nonetheless, the commission's first year has been productive in certain areas. The newly empowered board encouraged public defenders offices around the state to limit caseloads. It created, for the first time, a list of nongovernmental lawyers qualified to do criminal work on appointment by courts. It gave public defenders Internet access and modern computer resources. And responding to the rash of blown criminal appeals The Post reported on last year, the commission successfully pushed the General Assembly to relax a law that made it difficult and costly to restore a convict's lost legal right to appeal.
Still, the bureaucratic problems are troubling. Ms. Davoli is exactly the sort of person a serious indigent defense system needs. Appalled by the conditions she found when taking over the office last year, she successfully made it function professionally to protect its clients' interests. She is passionate about defending poor people. And during this page's investigation of blown appeals -- a subject about which others were extremely defensive -- she was the only lawyer in the state to voluntarily disclose errors her office had made. Yet in resigning, she complained publicly that the Richmond staff was not adequately supporting change and was using scarce resources for building bureaucracy. It speaks badly of the system that it drove her away.
The circumstances of Mr. Goemann's departure are less clear. Friction between him and some of the commissioners, along with budget disputes, clearly were involved. What is clear, however, is that the commission needs strong staff leadership that has both the confidence of commission members and the ability to oversee and to assist local reforms. The commission acted quickly to get a respected former judge as its interim director. This is important, but it is essential that the commission not lose momentum. Virginia ranks among the worst states in the country in providing fairness to those it would incarcerate. The commission is the latest opportunity for the commonwealth to meet its constitutional obligation; it is an opportunity that should not be lost.