L. A. Lawyer Wins Public Defender Job
A seasoned public defender from Los Angeles, described by one local attorney as “a real superstar,” was selected Wednesday as chief of San Diego County’s newly created system for representing poor people accused of crimes.
Francis J. Bardsley, 45, was named unanimously to the post of Public Defender by the county Board of Supervisors during a closed hearing. Bardsley, who is scheduled to start work here Oct. 17, will manage an office of 159 attorneys and an annual budget of $11.5 million.
“Everything about him impressed us,” Supervisor Brian Bilbray said. “He has extensive background as a trial attorney, but also, his management capabilities and management credentials are very substantial. He’s really got the perfect balance to run this system.”
Bardsley, a graduate of UC Berkeley’s Boalt School of Law, joined the Los Angeles County Public Defender’s Office in 1969 and quickly worked his way up to the supervisory level. He is now chief of the special services bureau, a unit of 50 lawyers that includes juvenile, mental health and civil divisions scattered in 11 locations.
As a trial attorney, Bardsley handled more than 25 capital cases and was twice a member of a special unit assigned to represent defendants in the most complex cases. Recently, he has been actively involved in hiring for the 535-attorney Los Angeles operation.
In an interview Wednesday, Bardsley said he views the San Diego position, which will pay $100,000 annually, as “a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to build an office from the ground up and make it the best of its kind in the United States.
Impressed by Potential
“There are only a few counties left in California that don’t have public defender offices, and the chance to build one here is something that I don’t expect will come around again in my professional lifetime,” Bardsley said. “I think there is potential here that no other community can match.”
The board’s selection came on the recommendation of an interviewing committee consisting of local attorneys John Cleary and Daniel Grindle, Santa Clara County Public Defender Stuart Rappaport and Asst. Chief Adminstrative Officer David Janssen. Bardsley was one of three top contenders in an initial pool of 17 applicants. There were no San Diego applicants among the finalists.
Cleary, in calling Bardsley a superstar, described him as a “real go-getter, a positive, energetic guy,” and said the candidate has won accolades from judges and prosecutors as well as fellow public defenders in Los Angeles.
“He’s a very dynamic, thoughtful person who is very committed to being a public defender,” Cleary said. “I believe he is dedicated to making this a first-rate office but also aware of the need to achieve the economies that are necessary because of the skyrocketing cost of indigent defense.”
Bailey Hails Move
In announcing Bardsley’s hiring, Board Chairman George Bailey hailed the move as “the start of a new era in protecting the rights of indigents who are accused of crimes” and noted that the task is one the county has been “struggling” with for a decade.
Indeed, when he takes over the reins next month, Bardsley faces the tough task of bringing stability and credibility to a system widely maligned for its spotty quality.
Until the supervisors approved the creation of the public defender’s office May 17, the job of representing indigents in court was performed by a mixture of agencies, including an in-house Office of Defender Services and private law firms under contract with the county.
In 1986, the American Bar Assn., the State Bar of California and a national legal magazine criticized that hybrid system, and the attacks prompted the formation of a blue-ribbon commission to study its defects.
The product of that exhaustive study was a report that found that the hodgepodge system was “inadequate to ensure quality representation” to defendants, suffered “glaring breakdowns” and “emphasized cost control at the expense of quality.” The commission also backed the formation of a nonprofit organization to take over the indigent defense job--rather than the traditional, county-run office of salaried public defenders favored by most cities and counties.
In early 1986, the supervisors embraced that recommendation and tentatively agreed to award Community Defenders Inc. a contract to represent criminal defendants unable to hire their own attorney.
But, in subsequent months, allegations that CDI’s executive director, Alex Landon, had aided a 1972 Chino prison escape were brought forth by Assemblyman Larry Stirling (R-San Diego). The allegations had been investigated at the time and no charges were ever filed against Landon, but a new investigation was opened at Stirling’s urging, and Landon resigned amid the furor.
That move, however, was not enough to save CDI’s contract. In May, Supervisor Brian Bilbray abruptly withdrew his support for Community Defenders and a board majority approved formation of the in-house Public Defender’s Office.
Late last week, Stirling sent a telegram to the supervisors that raised questions about the committee interviewing candidates for the public defender job.
“I understand that only one person is being presented to you for consideration for the post of public defender,” Stirling wrote. “That person, as I understand it, was selected by a group which included a former member of the blue-ribbon panel which created the idea of the private community defenders program; an associate of the would-be head of that program (Landon); and a lawyer who worked for several years in the same office with the suggested candidate.”
“That, to me, seems like an unfair process,” Stirling continued. “I would hope that you would interview all the qualified candidates and make your selection on the basis of qualification and not on the intrigue which clouded the decision to form the defenders office initially.”
Bilbray said that none of the allegations raised by Stirling was true. He said Bailey had sent a response to Stirling informing him that the assemblyman was operating on “bad information.”
Stirling could not be reached for comment Wednesday.
Bardsley, who was first interviewed by county supervisors Wednesday morning, said he does not expect the stormy history surrounding San Diego’s indigent defense system to hinder his efforts to build a structure capable of handling an estimated 65,000 criminal cases annually.
He said his first priorities will be “putting together a quality staff” and becoming acquainted with judges and attorneys in the community. One particularly important issue for him is the need to pay public defenders a salary equal to their counterparts in the district attorney’s office.
‘Insulting and Demeaning’
“The same work is being done on both sides of the table, and as I expressed to the interview board, I would find it insulting and demeaning to me as a department head if (public defenders) were not treated equally,” Bardsley said. “It’s very important that parity (in salaries) be reached in a reasonable length of time.”
Janssen, the assistant chief administrative officer, said the question of parity will be decided in contract negotiations.
Los Angeles County Public Defender Wilbur F. Littlefield was unavailable for comment Wednesday. His second in command, Asst. Public Defender Eugene A. Moutes, had nothing but praise for Bardsley.
“I can’t say anything but good things about him,” Moutes said. “He was an excellent trial attorney for many, many years . . . and he has been a very able and capable administrator. . . . He will be a direct loss to the Los Angeles Public Defender’s office and a great benefit to San Diego County. He is a very talented person.”
David Meyer, bureau chief for central court operations in the Los Angeles office, echoed those comments, calling Bardsley “a very popular fellow who has been given progressively greater positions of responsibility and clearly has won the confidence of the leadership here.
“He’s very experienced and savvy about what the real world is and what the difficulties facing public defenders are, and certainly in today’s mileu, there are a lot of those,” Meyer said.
Times Staff Writer Myrna Oliver contributed to this story.