Monday, April 15, 2013

Closing Arguments

From the Inlander:

Up in the attic of the Spokane County Public Defender’s office, longtime director John Rodgers roams the packed rows of archived case files, passing thousands of old court records filled with underdog tales, painful rulings and hard-fought justice.

Since his first days in law school, Rodgers has always found himself drawn to the stories behind the case numbers. When a new file comes across his desk, he will often flip first to the “facts” section just to read the colorful background information on the case.

“Sometimes it’s so depraved you wonder what the hell’s going on,” he says of the stories. “Other times, somebody will do something so noble it’ll bring tears to your eyes. … You just never know.”

Sporting round spectacles and a thick mustache, Rodgers, 61, has long served as a passionate advocate for defendants who cannot afford legal representation. He has spent more than 35 years practicing defense law in Spokane, overseeing the county’s public defender operations for the past decade.

The Spokane County Bar Association recently named Rodgers as the 2013 recipient of its most prestigious honor, the Smithmoore P. Myers Professionalism Award, named for the renowned U.S. magistrate judge and former dean of the Gonzaga University School of Law. The award will be presented at a banquet next week.

On the heels of that honor, Rodgers has announced he plans to leave the Public Defender’s office at the end of this year. He loves the law and he loves the stories, but he says he’s ready for a new chapter.

As director of the Public Defender’s office, Rodgers oversees 56 attorneys and 27 support staff members, including paralegals, investigators and administrative employees. The office handles thousands of indigent criminal and civil cases each year on an annual budget of about $8.4 million.

But Spokane County’s top public defender almost became a bookkeeper. Raised in a conservative family on the South Hill, Rodgers went on to major in accounting and literature at the University of Washington. He says he only discovered his love of the law by happenstance.

“Figured I’d end up cooking the books for some corporation eventually,” he says with a shrug. “I applied to law school because I didn't get an accounting job.”

While attending law school at Gonzaga, Rodgers first joined the Public Defender’s office as a volunteer in the mid-1970s. He stayed on after graduation for several years before starting his own private practice in 1993. He returned to the Public Defender’s office as director in 2003.

Rodgers says the core mission of a public defender remains the same as any defense attorney. Regardless of payment or politics, they must provide the best legal defense possible for their clients.

“It isn’t different because I work for the government,” he says. “It isn’t different because my client is poor. It’s exactly the same. … My job is to see that my client’s rights are scrupulously honored.”
Rodgers has argued hundreds of cases throughout his career, defending clients in several difficult death penalty cases as well as a notorious 1997 federal case against a group of anti-government militia members accused of bombings and bank robberies throughout the region. His colleagues describe him as fair-minded and hardworking.

Spokane Superior Court Judge James Triplet, a longtime friend, says Rodgers has always shown compassion and integrity when representing his clients.

“John always works hard to find out what’s been going on in their lives,” Triplet says. “He cares about those people and what they've been through.”

Full article can be found here.