A servant who served us all

This has been one of the loudest election seasons in memory -- with most of the cacophony coming long after the actual election was over. The most irritating sounds arrive in two varieties: the blaring hypocrisy from party loyalists who trumpet the primacy of the "law" when it suits their purposes, then blast the same "law" when it goes against them; and the puerile whining of the American public, which simply cannot tolerate a few weeks of uncertainty intruding upon its robotic television viewing habits -- especially by a controversy that lacks even a hint of salacious appeal.

Lost amid the boisterous recounts, the legal droning and the screaming TV talking heads is the much quieter story of an unassuming elected official who is graciously bowing out after 20 years of determined and faithful service to Central Florida. But lack of volume should not imply diminished significance. So here's a heartfelt encomium to Joe DuRocher, public defender for Orange and Osceola counties who is retiring from a job that gets little attention, but which nonetheless is crucial to the fair dispensation of justice in our community and our democracy.

The public defender system was created by the Florida Legislature in 1964, in response to a landmark 1963 U.S. Supreme Court decision. After reviewing the case of Clarence Earl Gideon, a Florida prison inmate, the high court effectively said that all persons accused of felony crimes in state courts were entitled to legal counsel. If they could not afford a lawyer, the states were ordered to provide one. In this case, the court recognized that two systems of justice -- one for the rich and one for the poor -- could no longer prevail in our country. The public defender's office was founded to guarantee the rights of the latter.

The original budget for the local office was $16,250 for one public defender and an assistant. Today it has a $7.1 million budget and 136 employees. Its clients now include juveniles and those accused of crimes from misdemeanors to traffic offenses. When the Supreme Court reinstated the death penalty in 1976, the office undertook the defense of those accused of capital crimes as well. America's escalating "war on drugs," with its concomitant assault on the poor and indigent, also has added mightily to the office's caseload.

Joe DuRocher's early career was as a Navy pilot and intelligence officer, and then as a lawyer in private practice. In the early 1970s he was appointed by Gov. Reubin Askew to serve as judge of the juvenile court for Orange County, and soon after, he became a Circuit Court judge.

In an unusual professional step, DuRocher left the bench and returned to the practice of law, so that he could better serve the same families and juveniles who had come before him as a jurist. It was this commitment to his fellow citizens that led him to become an advocate for those without a defender, rather than an unbiased adjudicator. He won his first term as public defender in 1980, and was re-elected four times without opposition.

By all accounts, DuRocher's tenure has been one of unquestioned integrity. His obligation to ensuring that justice be evenly administered has earned him an unblemished reputation for fairness and probity. He is considered by his staff to be "the greatest boss in the world," and has been sponsor, protector, role model and father figure to scores of young protégés. He has received high praise for recruiting women, minorities and physically challenged lawyers for his office, and for fostering a community of defense attorneys who work for their clients rather than their paychecks.

Last week, DuRocher was honored at an awards dinner attended by hundreds of his friends and associates. He was lauded for his modesty, morality and dedication, and thanked for his two decades of stewarding an office untainted by controversy. He assured the gathered company that although he was retiring, he was certainly not "quitting." He pledged to continue his public service by teaching, and remaining active in many areas, including championing environmental causes and working to abolish the death penalty.

At the apex of such a strident time, it's all the more important to remember the quiet, confident leadership of a man like Joe DuRocher. By devoting himself to the most needy members of society, he has ennobled not only the role of elected public servant but all the rest of us as well who dwell under the protection of America's laws and institutions.


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