New public defender ready for challenge

By Ed Brock

Christine A. Van Dross says she's looking forward to the challenge of being Clayton County's first circuit public defender.

She isn't daunted by the fact that she'll be starting off with a fraction of the staff that is available to her courtroom opponent, the Clayton County District Attorney's Office.

"I'm going to take this model and show how it can work," Van Dross said.

Van Dross, 51, will be filling the position made mandatory by the Georgia Indigent Defense Act that establishes public defender offices in most counties across the state. She will oversee an office of three assistant public defenders, two administrative assistants and one investigator. The purpose of her office is to provide criminal defense in felony cases, probation revocation and delinquency cases in juvenile court.

The state is paying for employee salaries and the county will pick up the tab for the building in which Van Dross' office will operate and the furniture for that office. The state will also provide computers and training.

Right now Van Dross is pretty sure she's found a building, though she can't yet release where it will be. She doesn't want an office at the Harold R. Banke Justice Center where the county's courtrooms are. The security there might place too many restrictions on her operations.

"I want to be able to see our clients at night and on weekends," Van Dross said.

Van Dross is also putting together a selection committee to pick her assistant public defenders. Her goal is to be in operation in 90 days.

A graduate of Hunter College in New York and the Indiana University School of Law in Bloomington, Van Dross has 23 years of experience practicing law. She moved to the Atlanta area shortly after graduating from law school in 1979.

"I did an internship in Atlanta with attorney Henrietta Turnquest," Van Dross said. "I liked it and she offered me a job."

From 1982 to 1986 she worked in the Fulton County Public Defender's Office, was on that county's list of court appointed lawyers and was the first woman appointed to the panel of court appointed lawyers for federal court.

Currently she lives in Fulton County but plans to move to Clayton County since it is preferable for circuit public defenders to live in the county in which she works. She's also looking forward to working in Clayton County's "friendly court."

"When you fight in the courtroom you fight in the courtroom," Van Dross said. "But when you leave the courtroom it's 'let's go have lunch.'"

A five-member selection committee chose Van Dross. They advertised the position with various legal organizations and received about 22 applications, said Jonesboro attorney Shana Rooks, head of the selection committee.

The committee narrowed the choices down to seven candidates and sent each candidate a questionnaire. Four of the seven returned the very detailed questionnaire and Van Dross said completing it was not easy.

"I had to go through 23 years of experiences," Van Dross said.

Choosing from the final four candidates was very difficult, Rooks said.

"The four that we interviewed were very, very good," Rooks said.

Van Dross stood out because of her passion for providing indigent defense, Rooks said.

"They all (had that passion) but she had a special passion," Rooks said.

Other members of the committee were former Clayton County District Attorney Bob Keller, President of the Clayton County Branch of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People Dexter Matthews, U.S. Rep. David Scott, D-Georgia, and Clayton County attorney Greg Hecht.

Last year Clayton County processed about 2,300 indigent cases, Van Dross said. She would like her office to one day be equal to the district attorney's office in terms of staffing, but she can still use the panel of private attorneys previously used for indigent defense in the county.

By state standards one attorney should handle no more than 250 cases a year, or about 12 cases a month, Van Dross said.

"Once it gets near that 12 cases we'll start pulling in those private attorneys," Van Dross said.

Her office will have several advantages in providing better representation for indigent cases which represent about 10 percent of the total number of cases passing through the court system. Along with the training and computers, the state will provide a list of expert witnesses. Also, her office will be connected by computer to other public defender offices around the state.

The defenders in her office will be on call and there office will be within a mile of the courthouse, Van Dross said.

Clayton County District Attorney Jewel Scott said she's looking forward to working with Van Dross. Scott's Senior Assistant District Attorney Todd Naugle said the same.

"She's well qualified. She'll make a great public defender," Naugle said.

Van Dross' salary will be $87,593 and her assistant public defender's salary will be based on experience. According to the Georgia statute creating the office those salaries can only be 90 percent of what would be paid to someone in a comparable position in the district attorney's office, said Jim Martin with the Georgia Public Defender Standards Council.

Van Dross is the 44th circuit public defender to be appointed in the state.