'The judicial system is broken. It’s structurally defective. ...We have got to restructure it.'
Former Tulsa County Chief Public Defender
Before he had said a word, or answered a question, Rob Nigh pulled out a blue marker and drew an upside-down triangle on a blue notepad. Then he drew lines inside the triangle and scribbled some words on them.
But more about that later.
Nigh had come to his old stomping grounds, the law offices of Brewster & DeAngelis, for his first interview since stepping down as Tulsa County’s chief public defender July 1. He’s battling health issues, but he is as passionate about his life’s work as ever.
During a nearly hour-long interview, he recounted the successes and failures of his two-and-a-half-year tenure as chief public defender, decried what he described as the state’s broken criminal justice justice system, and insisted that he was just a “flash in the pan” at the Public Defender’s Office and that its work would continue without him there.
“I have complete faith that the people that are there now are going to continue to improve the criminal justice system in Tulsa,” Nigh said.
Nigh was named interim chief public defender in late 2014, replacing Jack Zanerhaft, and took the job full time in March 2015. A few months later, in an interview with The Frontier, the 57-year-old Enid native said he chose to leave his successful and lucrative private practice for the Public Defender’s Office after he “became overtaken” by the work.
“The most important thing to me about a job or work or a career is getting up in the morning and being excited about what you do and looking forward to work and being happy with what the day ahead looks like,” Nigh said at the time. “I have that here … in the same way I had it in a law firm, but in a slightly larger degree.”
Nigh had things he wanted to accomplish in his new role. He wanted his lawyers to provide the best possible service to their clients. He wanted more lawyers, and for those lawyers to be better trained and better paid. And there were systemic issues in the criminal justice system he was hell-bent on addressing. They included getting inmates with mental health issues out of jail and into treatment, and finding more resources for the juvenile court system.
“The client comes first. They are not files. They are not numbers. They are not docket entries. They are people.” – Rob Nigh
But first he had to hammer home the department’s philosophy.
“The client comes first,” Nigh said. “They are not files. They are not numbers. They are not docket entries. They are people. They are clients, and we have to treat them that way, and we never forget that that is who they are.”
With buy-in and input from his entire staff, secretaries on up, Nigh put together a policy and procedures manual. Thanks to funding secured by his predecessor, more public defenders were sent to trial schools. He was even able to hire a few more attorneys. Better pay for his attorneys? That never happened.
Nigh stressed the importance of making sure clients felt they had someone in their corner advocating for them from day one. With assistance from the Sheriff’s Office, the Public Defender’s Office made it a policy to meet with its clients the same day they were assigned to the case.
This helps reassure clients that their legal interests are being protected, Nigh said, while at the same time ensuring that the public defender can begin to get to know the clients and their cases as soon as possible.
“We need to get them out (of jail) as soon as we can because the consequences are just devastating,” Nigh said. “I mean, people lose their jobs, which means they can’t pay the rent, which means they can’t make the car payment, which means they can’t get to work. The more time they spend in jail without a resolution, the more devastating it becomes.”
Under Nigh, the Public Defender’s Office adopted what he described as the “Bronx Defenders” model of representation — a holistic approach that requires attorneys to do more than legal work.
“If they (clients) are on probation, they have a huge number of obligations to fulfill…,” Nigh said. “These are people who sometimes have difficulty navigating life, let alone six different agencies. So what we try to do is maintain contact with them to the extent that we can and be there for them to help them.”
Nigh likes to think clients saw their representation improve while he was chief public defender.
“I think he or she (clients) would see more hands-on, direct work upon their cases in the form of motion practice — motion for bond reduction, efforts to get an early court date,” Nigh said. “Those are the kinds of tangible things a defendant might see.
“They might have seen those things before, but we put emphasis on it, and hoped to achieve that.”
This does not mean, he was quick to say, that he was the reason for those improvements.
“If there is progress that has been made, it’s been as an office as a whole,” Nigh said. “I am a flash in the pan. Maybe I am a lightning rod sometimes, but this has been an office-wide effort with a true commitment from everybody in the office. And so from the beginning, making it work has been their doing, not mine.”
The Public Defender’s Office does not operate in a judicial vacuum. Nigh credits the District Attorney’s Office, the Sheriff’s Office and Tulsa County District Court judges with working with him to improve the judicial system.
Rob always looked at it, you know, once (jail inmates) are out from being behind bars, can we prevent them from being recidivists? And I respected that approach. It was refreshing.” – Tulsa County District Attorney Steve Kunzweiler
For example, Nigh said, after District Court judges were made aware that inmates were languishing in jail because they could not pay their fines, they acted to get them out.
“First they stopped issuing warrants for failure to pay only,” Nigh said. “Secondly, when somebody did get arrested on a failure to pay only on an old warrant, they would get them out of jail that day, and they would give them a court date to come back.”
The same cooperation has led to reduced bonds, expedited court appearances and increasing eligibility for probation, Nigh said.
Tulsa County District Attorney Steve Kunzweiler describes Nigh’s tenure as chief public defender as “a needed breath of fresh air in the courthouse.”
Although they did not see eye-to-eye on many issues, Kunzweiler said, they shared a desire to use alternate approaches to address nonviolent offenders, whether it was through the Women in Recovery program or support for the creation of a public inebriate facility.
“They may have done some things that society disagrees with, and there ought to be accountability,” Kunzweiler said. “But Rob always looked at it, you know, once they are out from being behind bars, can we prevent them from being recidivists? And I respected that approach. It was refreshing.”
As he fights to regain his health, what seems to haunt Nigh — and elicit his strongest reactions — is any mention of what still needs to be done to improve the criminal justice system.
It’s bigger than that, is Nigh’s first point. Until Oklahoma does a better job of educating its young people, he said, things aren’t going to get better. His clients will continue to be poor, uneducated, without positive role models and, all too often, victims of abuse and trauma.
“I know where my clients come from. They are the ones that don’t graduate,” Nigh said. “And instead of investing in teachers and equipment and technology and a higher level of education, we spend our money designing new prisons and figuring contracts with private corrections corporations, which is totally backwards.
“I don’t know how we can continue to exist this way.”
Compounding the issue, Nigh believes, is the fact that the state doesn’t properly fund the judiciary, leaving those least able to afford legal representation to pay 90 percent of the cost through fines, fees and other charges.
“The judicial system is broken. It’s structurally defective,” he said. “It costs over $100 million a year to run the judicial branch. The Legislature appropriates $12 million. …We have got to restructure it. We have got to have an appropriation for the judiciary which treats them like the third branch of government instead of a state agency.”
The funding deficiency has real-life consequences. The American Bar Association recommends that public defenders handle no more than 150 cases a year, yet in the Tulsa County Public Defender’s Office the number is more than 300, Nigh said.
“The judicial system is broken. It’s structurally defective” – Rob Nigh
He could go on and on. And does. Cash bonds are unfair, he says, leaving the poor locked up while those with money go free. And the state needs to stop putting nonviolent offenders in prison.
Finally, he gets to that blue triangle he drew on the blue notepad.
It turns out it’s Nigh’s organizational chart, if you will, for the Public Defender’s Office. As simplistic as it appeared coming from for a man of his accomplishments, it was really the perfect way to begin and end the story of his time as chief public defender.
It also told a lot about the man himself.
“Clients are most important,” he said, pointing to the top line. Then, working his way down line by line, he went on. “Assistant public defenders do everything they can to help their clients. The investigators and interns do everything they can to help the public defenders do their jobs. And then the staff and secretaries help everybody else.
“And then there was going to be a bottom rung. It would be the chief public defender. My job is to help everybody else.”
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