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Bar members jockey for new public defender position


It might lack the drama or romance of TV’s Golden Bachelor. But a different kind of competition that’s brewing a bit closer to home has inspired just as much water cooler chatter among the attorneys in Alamance County.

The selection of Alamance County’s first public defender will ultimately rest in the hands of Tom Lambeth, the county’s senior resident superior court judge.

But before Lambeth formally fills this position, the county’s lawyers will have an opportunity to weigh in on this historic expansion of the county’s criminal court system, which was recently authorized in the state’s current annual budget.

On November 2, the members of Alamance County’s bar association are scheduled to convene at Grill 584 in Burlington at 12:30 p.m. to provide Lambeth with some suggestions for his forthcoming appointment.

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Under state law, members of the association who reside in Alamance County can offer between two and three nominees for the public defender’s position, which the General Assembly recently authorized to replace the rotating list of private practitioners who have traditionally represented the county’s indigent defendants.

Keisha Bluford, the current president of the local bar association, said that group will make its selections by secret ballot from a list of contenders who should, by and large, be known to the membership before the meeting begins.
“They have to submit their nominations in writing,” she added in an interview Tuesday. “They can submit their names that day. The ballots will already be printed, but I believe that people can write in [additional] names.”

Bluford added that, as of Tuesday morning, she had received written submissions from two individuals interested in the public defender’s position.

One of the contenders, district court judge Rick Champion, was profiled in last week’s edition of The Alamance News.

Also in the running, according to Bluford, is Jeff McMillion, a 31-year-old attorney with his own private law practice in Graham.

A native of northern Ohio, McMillion told The Alamance News that he hung up his shingle in the county seat shortly after he obtained his law degree from Campbell University.

“I’ve been practicing law for about five years,” he added. “We do criminal defense and personal injury work, and we do a lot of civic litigation as well.”

McMillion attributed his interest in the public defender’s position to his own experience with criminal defense in this judicial district.

“It’s been a position that I think we’ve needed for a really long time,” he added. “If we get it rolling and get it done right, I think it will be an asset to the county.”

The budget that North Carolina’s General Assembly adopted last month provides enough funds for the new public defender to hire a staff of six other lawyers and four auxiliary employees to aid in the defense of the county’s indigent suspects.

Last week, Champion told The Alamance News that he sees the leadership of this 11-person outfit as a natural culmination of his own 39-year-old career, which included stints as both a prosecutor and a private defense lawyer prior to his current assignment as a district court judge.

But for Jeff Dobson, a defense lawyer based out of Wake County, an independent practitioner like McMillion would make a more suitable choice to head up the new public defender’s office.

“I have about 260 clients in Alamance,” Dobson told The Alamance News in an interview on Tuesday, “and I know I’ve heard it from a lot of my clients that they don’t want a judge to be the public defender. If you want a public defender’s office that they have faith in, you wouldn’t want it in the hands of someone who has previously lectured them or ruled on their bonds…[McMillion] is not coming from the bench and he’s not going to have ruled on their bonds.”

McMillion, for his part, is more diplomatic about his own claim to the public defender’s position.

“I know that my experience pales against Judge Champion’s. But what I think I would bring to the position is a fresh look and a different point of view.

“No matter who the bar chooses,” he added, “I think the position will be in good hands.

Aside from McMillion and Champion, Bluford said that the bar association has received information overtures from attorney Ray Griffis about his possible interest in the public defender’s appointment. Griffis, who currently works at the Chapel Hill firm of Matthew Charles Suczynski, said that he has since set aside his ambitions.

“I was interested about a year ago,” he told the newspaper on Tuesday. “But I’m not interested now, and I fully support the people who have submitted their names to the bar.”

In addition to the bar association’s two to three nominees, Lambeth will also receive another recommendation from the director of North Carolina’s Administrative Office of the Courts. This name will be selected in consultation with N.C. Indigent Defense Services, the state-level agency that oversees public defenders across North Carolina.

In the midst of the tumult over the public defender’s selection, Alamance County’s leaders have been clamoring to find an adequate facility to accommodate this new addition to the local court system. This search apparently ended on Monday when the county’s board of commissioners authorized the county’s administrators to purchase a building that attorney Todd Allen Smith owns at 106 South Main Street in Graham.

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This structure, which contains Smith’s own legal office as well as a number of smaller office suites, is situated across the road from the county-owned complex that includes Alamance County jail as well as the Judge J.B. Allen, Jr. Court House, which serves as a venue for most of the county’s criminal cases.

The commissioners agreed to offer Smith $1.2 million for his office building as well as an adjoining parking lot after a 15-minute closed session that followed an otherwise public meeting on Monday.

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