The local chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union is having its annual meeting tonight at Arcata’s D Street Neighborhood Center, during which it will present its annual Patriot Award to the Humboldt County Public Defender’s Office “in recognition of the difficult year” it just finished.
“The county almost destroyed the public defender’s office last year with a spectacularly unqualified hire,” said Sylvia De Rooy, a member of the local chapter’s board of directors, referencing the county’s hiring of now former Public Defender David Marcus. “It took a whole year to rectify the mistake. Defending the accused is difficult work in the best of circumstances. The lawyers and staff that hung in there under trying conditions to make good on the fundamental right of the accused to effective assistance of counsel are unsung heroes. The Redwood ACLU is proud to recognize their efforts.”
The Humboldt County Board of Supervisors hired Marcus to helm the office last February but his nine-month tenure would come to be shrouded in controversy as a lawsuit brought by local attorney Patrik Griego challenged whether he met minimum state qualifications for the job, most of his staff sent the board letters alleging he was incompetent and “crippling” the office and a string of attorneys and support staff left the office’s employment. Marcus’ tenure also seemed to create chaos in the courts, where the office represents more than 80 percent of defendants in criminal cases, resulting in a swath of continuances.
In late November, as it appeared the board was preparing to review Marcus’ job performance in closed session, he resigned, the result of a negotiated severance agreement that paid Marcus about $25,000.
Deputy Public Defender Casey Russo, who will be appearing at the meeting tonight to accept the award on behalf of the office, said staff feel honored to be receiving what he dubbed a kind of “perserverence award.”
“We all feel honored that they would think of us,” he said, adding that the ACLU’s mission to protect people’s rights aligns with that of the public defender’s office. “Given the circumstances of the last year, we understand the meaning of it. It’s a tremendous staff that works here. It was a trying year and it took a big effort from everybody to get through it and to come to work every day to do what we needed to do to get the job done. This feels like a recognition of that and the job that we do for this community. From a group like (the ACLU), this is a tremendous honor.”
The event is a potluck so attendees are asked to bring a dish to share. It runs from 6 to 8 p.m. and will also feature a discussion on how civil liberties relate to the #MeToo campaign.