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Leader of Macomb public defender office hopes to bring 'parity' to indigent defendants

James David Dickson
The Detroit News

Mount Clemens — Macomb County has hired a Clinton Township defense attorney with more than three decades of experience to build and lead its newly created office of public defender.

Thomas Tomko's hiring was announced at a press conference Wednesday in a Macomb County-owned office plaza in downtown Mount Clemens. 

More:'A fair fight': Macomb County hiring to create public defender office

Discussions on the need for such an office date back more than a decade. The county's 2009 charter authorized its creation. The need had long been clear, said Macomb County Executive Mark Hackel.

But an extra push, and a healthy portion of the funding, came from the Michigan Indigent Defense Commission, which is leading a statewide overhaul in the way criminal defendants too poor to afford their own lawyers are represented.

"We had the funds available and put it into the budget," Hackel said of the office, whose budget will be about $7 million this year. The state will pay about 75% while the county will pay 25%. "(Tomko) will now be tasked with trying to figure out how does he pull this all together."

The county sorted through dozens of applications. Circuit court and district court judges, human resources, and deputy county executive Vicki Wolber all helped shape the process and recommendations that resulted in Tomko's hire.

"It was my appointment to make," Hackel said. 

Tomko will make a salary of $95,802.

James Maceroni, a Macomb County Circuit Court judge, was "intimately involved" in the process, Hackel said. Earlier in his career, Maceroni was a defense attorney.

"Something that was critical in Macomb County ... is to have a public defender's office that serves as a counter to the prosecutor's office, to have parity between the two," Maceroni said. "For the system to work correctly, all those people must be equal, to an extent, and they must have a seat at the table." 

From left, Macomb County Executive Mark Hackel, Deputy Executive Vicki Wolber, Thomas Tomko, and Chief Judge James Biernat Jr. announce the hiring of Tomko as the administrator of Macomb County’s new office of public defender.

Tomko on Wednesday described the new office as both a "great opportunity and a great challenge." 

"We're starting with the unknown because we're building something that didn't exist before," Tomko said. "As time goes on, it'll develop into something that I think we will be proud of in Macomb County."

Tomko might return to the courtroom himself someday in lawyer role within the office. The office will be hiring a head public defender, and if Tomko wanted that position, a new administrator would need to be hired, Hackel said. But the focus, for now, is staffing up an office.

Meanwhile, Hackel was so bothered by the outside appearance of the office that he phoned a deputy county executive, prior to the press conference, to see what could be done to improve it. 

"It's a little questionable, the appearance," Hackel joked of the new office. 

How many people will be hired, and how much of the indigent defense load it takes on, are all yet to be determined.

For comparison, in Wayne County, the Neighborhood Defenders Service handles about 25% of indigent defense cases from the circuit court, while the remainder is assigned to attorneys on the public defender rotation. A similar ratio is possible in Macomb, Maceroni said. 

More:Wayne County makes deal for new public defender office

"There's a lot of plans to build off of where we're at today," Wolber said. "Maybe in three to six months, we'll have a better idea of where we're at and what that's going to look like."

While prosecutor's offices have many attorneys of varying interests and expertise, many defense attorneys on the county's list of about 300 who serve indigent clients are often solo practitioners — as Tomko was before taking the job.

"They don't have the resources that big office has, not only in terms of easy access to investigators but just having an office setting where you have other individuals that have expertise in different types of cases that you can bounce things off of," Maceroni said. 

Tomko described the county's current indigent defense system, which will continue on in some form, as one with good attorneys involved.

Maceroni said the list would always be necessary, citing the need to address potential conflicts of interest in cases.

"Now we have a place, and a resource, that can elevate the practice for everybody," Tomko said. 

James Biernat Jr., chief judge of the Macomb Circuit Court, estimated that in somewhere between 70% and 80% of cases, the defendant is indigent and in need of an appointed attorney.

Biernat has seen appointed attorneys so lacking in resources that they've asked staffers for the prosecution for help.

At a homicide trial, Biernat said, he's seen an appointed attorney ask if the prosecution's IT person can help show a video.

"Those are the kinds of things that can hopefully be remedied," Biernat said. 

Hackel said the quality of justice someone receives shouldn't be tied to their ability to pay for it.

"If you're fortunate enough to hire somebody, you have the money, that's great, but there's some people out there that just don't have the means," Hackel said. "That's who we're here for."

jdickson@detroitnews.com

Twitter: @downi75