The retirement of James Purdy has opened the elected position of 7th Circuit public defender covering Volusia, Flagler, St. Johns and Putnam counties.
The campaign for the 7th Circuit Public Defender’s Office is a three-way contest between Republican candidates promoting their experience, leadership and vision.
The race pits George Burden, Anne Marie Gennusa and Matt Metz, competing to replace James Purdy who is retiring after 16 years leading the 7th Circuit Public Defender’s Office which provides defense attorneys at no charge to defendants who can’t afford to hire their own in Volusia, Flagler, St. Johns and Putnam counties.
The winner will direct an office with a $13 million budget and 134 total employees, including 86 attorneys. The public defender serves four-year terms and earns $169,554 a year.
All registered voters in the circuit can vote in the public defenders race in the Aug. 18 primary. The race will be decided in the primary with the candidate with the most votes, even if less than 50%, winning the seat.
George Burden and Matt Metz both currently work at the public defender’s office while Gennusa runs her own law firm, Gennusa Law in St. Augustine.
Burden, 62, of Daytona Beach, is leading the money race with $59,355 in contributions and $3,000 in loans. Burden also has the backing of some well known Volusia names including car dealer and former Daytona Beach Mayor Glenn Ritchie.
Burden has taken some cases of note on the side, including representing family members who have sued the city of St. Augustine to prevent the damage of a memorial to Confederate soldiers that the city plans to move. Burden also challenged the Flagler Avenue Business Association after a decorative brick which read “Trump 2020” and “Drain Swamp” was removed from Flagler Avenue. Burden said it was a free speech issue and the brick was replaced before a lawsuit was filed.
Gennusa, 53, of St. Johns County, has collected $35,050 in contributions and has $12,010 in loans. Gennusa touts her experience running a law firm and her education in human resources. She said she also worked as a public defender for four years n the Bronx at the start of her career.
Metz, 34, of Daytona Beach, has collected $34,521 in contributions and $19,050 in loans. His last name might have a familiar sound. He is the son of Claire Metz, a longtime reporter for WESH-TV.
Here are the candidates and their views on some issues.
Why should voters vote for you?
BURDEN: Burden said he has worked for three decades (hired on Sept. 18, 1989) at the Public Defender’s Office and that he has experience in seven different functions there: misdemeanor, felony and capital trial defenses, felony and capital appeals, juvenile justice, and civil commitment. He said he has made 41 appearances before the Florida Supreme Court. Burden also touts his experience as an officer when he served in the Air Force.
“You want to hire the person who has the most in depth legal knowledge about the job itself,” Burden said. “I’m the only candidate who has worked in all seven (divisions).”
GENNUSA: Gennusa said that since she doesn’t work at the Public Defender’s Office she would bring a “different perspective” to the job. She said she also has experience working in New York and Philadelphia and brings a business background.
“I’m the only candidate who has active business experience; I have over 21 years in business. In addition to my law degree from Temple University, I have dual master’s certificates, one of them being in human resources management. With a budget of over $13 million for the Public Defender’s office. It’s more than just saying ‘I work at the office’ or ‘I worked at the office.’ It’s understanding how businesses work.”
METZ: Metz has worked for the Public Defenders Office for nine years since he earned his law degree. He cited his experience in both management and his current case load as strengths. Metz said he has taken on big projects, like converting to a paperless system and his vision for future includes best hiring practices, training and technology.
“I’ve got the right mix of experience, energy and vision for the future of the office. I’m currently the only candidate who is managing over 10 felony attorneys and their staff while handling over 150 criminal cases at a time right now. I’m the only candidate who is board certified in criminal trial law.
How would you improve the Public Defender’s office?
BURDEN: Burden said he believes the office is lacking in experience and he wants to change that by working on retaining lawyers.
“What I want to do is have career public defenders again and have experienced attorneys that can mentor younger lawyers and then create an environment where we retain these attorneys,” Burden said.
GENNUSA: Restorative justice is also another one of my priorities and having good rapport with the agencies that are involved in providing the mental health treatment and alternative courts is critical.
She also said she would like to change the website at the Public Defender’s Office because “Currently the website for the public defender’s office has nothing on their that would help.”
METZ: “I would like to see restorative justice programs that focus not just on punishment but on making the victim whole and connecting them in a way with the defendant to show both sides of the humanity of what happened when a crime occurred. Defendants are better able to understand the harm they caused which would hopefully lead to reductions in the future.”
In the wake of protests after the killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis, how would you work to make sure the justice system provides equal justice for all?
BURDEN: Burden cited a large story from the Sarasota Herald-Tribune detailing sentencing disparities against African-Americans in Florida. Burden said most cases are handled by plea agreements worked out between prosecutors and defense attorneys, while open pleas give judges more discretion.
“I don’t think anyone is intentionally doing this,” Burden said. “I don’t even believe they know they are doing it, but the facts speak for themselves. What you have to do is you have to educate all the stakeholders to be mindful that we live in America where justice is blind and justice is color blind.”
GENNUSA: Gennusa said there are people who fail in all professions and Floyd’s death showed some people should not be police officers. Gennusa said she would have dialogues with the Sheriff’s Office and organizations like mental health providers and the NAACP. She said defense attorneys should visit the police academy during training to humanize their clients.
“This isn’t just a perp,” she said. “This is somebody’s father or son or mother or aunt.”
Metz: Metz said that the office would continue to participate in implicit bias training as it has in the past, which he said it had done partly at his direction.
“I think one of the biggest issues we have is that each department, the state attorney’s office, the police or the judiciary need to be willing to take personal responsibility for this matter so that it doesn’t fall between the cracks.”
Republicans are known as fiscally conservative. What would you do to ensure that your office has enough resources to protect defendants?
BURDEN: Burden said he would do a study on what public defenders earn in other jurisdictions and ask the Legislature for more money. (Assistant Public Defenders and their counterparts, assistant state attorneys, received a raise in starting pay in October from $39,000 to $50,000. Burden said when he started his pay then of $31,000 was equal to $66,000 today.) “We are not asking for largesse. We just want to keep up with inflation, so we can have retention. Retention saves taxpayer’s money. It is a conservative philosophy. “
GENNUSA: A lobbyist in Tallahassee works for the Public Defender’s Office, Gennusa said, but she would seek grants and private donations. She said she has spoken to private attorneys who have offered to help with coverage and training. “It shouldn’t always be raise taxes.”
METZ: The public defender’s office has traditionally been funded as a lower percentage of the state attorney’s budget. My philosophy is that we deserve just as much as any other organization that is focused on criminal justice. The Constitution requires that we provide adequate representation to everyone coming before the court. And that means keeping us well funded.