Wednesday, November 28, 2007

Public defender Brummer to retire after three decades

Miami-Dade Public Defender Bennett Brummer announced Monday that he will retire when his current term in office ends in January 2009.
Bennett H. Brummer
• Age: 66.
• Born: April 16, 1941, New York.
• Party: Democrat.
• Education: University of Miami, bachelor's in English, 1962; University of Miami School of Law, 1965; University of Pennsylvania School of Law, Community Lawyer Fellowship, 1968-1970.
• Recent professional and political experience: Dade public defender, 1977-2007.
• Personal: Married to Arlene Brummer for 45 years.


Ending a three-decade career as the county's top defense attorney, Miami-Dade Public Defender Bennett Brummer announced Monday that he will not seek reelection next year.
Brummer, who has held the position since 1977, said he made the announcement in part to end speculation about whether he would run for reelection and to give ``ample notice to his employees, friends and the public.''

''I've been thinking about [retiring] for many years. I wanted to leave when the office was at its strongest,'' he said.

News of his impending retirement didn't surprise many -- rumors that he was about to step aside have swirled around the criminal courthouse for years -- but it did prompt an outpouring of praise from judges, private defense attorneys and even the Miami-Dade State Attorney.

''Bennett Brummer has spent his professional life serving our community,'' Miami-Dade State Attorney Katherine Fernández Rundle said. ``As state attorney, I have always appreciated his vision and his deep personal commitment to the people of this community. Miami-Dade County is profoundly indebted to him.''

Said Miami-Dade County Judge Robin Faber: ``I'm a better judge for the time I spent there.''

Rick Freedman, now vice president of the Miami-Dade chapter of the Florida Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers, said the years he spent as an assistant public defender under Brummer were the best of his career.

'When I was handed a file, I was told `Rick, do whatever it takes.' If I needed assistance from a senior colleague, I got it. If I needed direction, I got it,'' he said.

Brummer was also lauded Monday by community activists who say his work on behalf of the mentally ill and mentally retarded made Miami-Dade a safer place for them to live.

During his tenure, Brummer also helped lead the fight for better funding for indigent defense, pulling his attorneys off hundreds of juvenile cases in 1992 because he said it would be unethical for his office to take on more cases than the attorneys could reasonably handle. He later refused to take more death penalty cases for the same reason.

He took the issue all the way to the Florida Supreme Court and forced changes in the way public defenders across the state are funded.

''Indigent defense and indigent healthcare are usually the last two things that government wants to fund, and he made sure they funded indigent defense at the levels they needed to be funded,'' Pinellas County Public Defender Bob Dillinger said. ``That was a courageous act.''

Brummer even took his crusade for good representation for the poor to other countries, consulting around Latin America with governments setting up their own public defenders' offices.

''He worked closely with public defender systems internationally to strengthen offices in countries where people who will never know who he is will have their freedom because of his work,'' said John DeLeon, a former assistant in his office who left Miami-Dade to work in Bogotá to help the government there improve its public defender system.

Lida Rodriguez-Taseff, a Miami civil rights attorney, said Brummer was particularly good at giving his attorneys the freedom they needed to do their jobs, even in tough political climates.

''Many indigent offices pull punches, or feel like they have to pull punches, because they get their funding from government,'' she said. ``The fact that he backed up his lawyers when they took strong positions in court, that speaks volumes of him.''

It also where he faced some his strongest criticism.

In the mid-'90s, when his office was defending Juan Carlos Chavez, the man convicted of raping and killing 9-year-old Jimmy Ryce, Brummer's attorneys and even his secretaries received death threats.

One of Chavez's attorneys later left the office and accused Brummer of not letting him do his job adequately because he was concerned about the upcoming election. A judge last year, however, ruled Chavez's legal team effectively represented him and refused to order a new trial.

Brummer says the case was ''the most difficult case that we've been privileged to handle during my tenure'' but that he was proud of how his attorneys handled it.

''This is the way we lose our liberty, when people would deprive unpopular people of their day in court, which was all Mr. Chavez got,'' he said Monday.

Brummer also faced criticism during the 2004 election -- one of only three elections when he faced opposition. That year, a handful of former assistant public defenders complained of heavy-handed tactics by Brummer loyalists. Two of his top assistants had to pay fines to the state election commission after admitting they asked employees to sign endorsements in the office.

Brummer's office also agreed to pay attorney Lonnie Richardson $200,000 to settle his claim that he was fired for supporting Brummer's opponent in 2004.

Brummer said he hopes his tenure is remembered for his efforts in the community, not the conflicts that erupted over the years. ''Our community involvement is a hallmark of the office that I would like to see continue,'' he said.

On Monday, Brummer's chief assistant, Carlos Martinez, said he had filed election papers to succeed his boss.

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