Friday, June 14, 2024

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Public defender Champion has office up and running – even without office space


The wheels of justice are notoriously slow, and their sluggishness is all but taken for granted by many officers of the court. But it doesn’t appear that this truism has sunk in with Alamance County’s new public defender Rick Champion.

Since his appointment to this newly-inaugurated post on December 1, Champion has gotten down to business with a speed and alacrity that seems to have outpaced the ability of the institutions he serves to keep up.

In fact, Champion, who had been a district court judge prior to his appointment as public defender, has assembled nearly the entire 10-person staff that the state legislature allotted to the public defender’s office when it authorized its creation in Alamance County as part of the state’s current budget.

“I’ve got one still to fill, which is the investigator position,” Champion acknowledged when a reporter from The Alamance News paid him a visit on Tuesday. “I was reviewing the applications for that position when you came in. We got about 60 of them.”

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Aside from this in-house sleuth, Champion acknowledged that he has already hired a full complement of assistant public defenders, which comprises attorneys Janice Brooks, Jeffrey Dobson, Chyanne Flores, Rebecca Greene, Ralph Hill, and Lamar Proctor,. Champion has also secured three auxiliary staff members – namely Alexis Bowers as his administrative assistant and two legal assistants whom he identified as Gabriela Camacho and Leslie Miranda.

While some of his hires have not yet assumed their new posts, Champion acknowledges that those who have been installed have already begun to take over the cases of indigent defendants, which the local court system has traditionally assigned to a rotating roster of private practitioners. He added that Dobson and Flores have even kicked off the trial of one indigent client, who had previously been allotted to Dobson under the old system of court-appointed attorneys.

It may be a testament to the speed with which Champion and his assistant defenders have embarked on their duties that, at the moment, they have no fixed abode to lay down their briefcases.

The responsibility for housing the public defender’s office ultimately belongs to Alamance County, which has indeed made an effort to provide an adequate workspace for Champion and his associates. Last fall, the county’s board of commissioners agreed to purchase a cluster of office suites that local attorney Todd Allen Smith owns at 106 South Maple Street in Graham. Smith has reportedly accepted the county’s offer of $1.2 million for this property, although at this point, the sale has not yet been finalized for reasons that county officials portray as relatively minor.

As the sale of these offices continues to hover in limbo, the county’s administrators have resorted to every trick in their repertoire to provide basic accommodations for the public defender’s office. This task has proven no easy matter, according to Brian Baker, who oversees the county’s facilities in his capacity as one of Alamance County’s assistant managers.

“We’re still working with the public defender to find space for him,” Baker acknowledged in an interview earlier this week. “Right now, he has an office in the basement of the civil courts building…But we’re going to renovate the old board of elections building. We just put on a new roof, and we still have to put in a new sewer line.”

Champion’s current basement retreat is every bit the hole-in-the-wall that one may envision from Baker’s pithy description.

Situated amid a warren of small rooms in the lowest level of the county’s civil courts building, this cloakroom-sized space is sparsely furnished with a desk and some chairs, while the room’s exposed ceiling offers a full view of the building’s structural innards. Short on creature comports, this ad hoc office provides no room for Champion’s staff members. It also lacks adequate Internet service and, as an added indignity, it has little in the way of sound proofing to prevent noise from escaping into a courtroom that lies just down the hall.

Champion has nevertheless been making the best of these ill-suited digs as he looks forward to his next set of provisional accommodations courtesy of the county.

“This is a temporary situation,” he stressed. “The county and the administrative office of the courts are working to get another Internet connection down here until we can move to our next temporary space.”

Champion conceded that the county had offered to let him temporarily remain in the office he occupied as a district court judge – and which has stood empty as the governor’s office has continued to ruminate over his judicial successor. Champion admitted that he turned down the county’s offer so as to maintain a scrupulous distance between himself and his former colleagues on the district court bench.

The county’s new public defender added that, with any luck, he’ll only have to endure his current subterranean hovel for another six weeks or so. By that point, the county will have presumably finished renovating its former elections office at the corner of Maple and Pine streets, which has been vacant since its staff relocated to their existing quarters along South Main Street last fall.

Baker conceded that the county still needs to switch out an old sewer line before the former elections office can be put back into commission for the benefit of the public defender. In the meantime, he said that the county is tying up some of the loose ends in its purchase of the office suites that will serve as Champion’s permanent headquarters.

“We did an inspection – due diligence – and there were a couple of things we have to resolve with the owner,” the assistant county manager went on to explain.  “We’re still going to close on it, but we’re just not there yet.

For the time being, Champion and his staff are resigned to their relatively rootless existence as the veritable vagabonds of the local court system. But they have some consolation in knowing that their wanderings in the wilderness will eventually end and that there’s a permanent address at the end of their journey at 106 South Maple Street in Graham.

“The county plans to give the current tenants until June to move out,” Champion went on to note, “and we’ll be able to move in in six to eight months.”

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