Firing John Adams

Not the founding father, but the Public Defender of Kootenai County, working out of beautiful Coeur d’Alene, Idaho.  Like his namesake, he was a legend, running the best damn public defender office in the state, one that had never lost a defendant to the executioner.  And it finally cost him.

The Kootenai County commissioners unanimously passed a resolution on Tuesday to end his term this fall.

“It’s absolutely a termination,” Adams said.

Adams said the termination notice comes three weeks after he made a formal complaint against Commissioner Jai Nelson, saying she had allegedly harassed him since she joined the board. The notice comes two weeks after Adams, 59, told Commission Chairman Todd Tondee that he has cancer and will be undergoing chemotherapy and will need a day off each week for the treatment. Facing the loss of his health insurance is scary, Adams said.

It will be personally devastating, given that he’s suffering cancer. It will be institutionally worse, given that he ran an exceptionally effective office.  Adams learned that “his services were no longer needed” in a one-line memo, which he called “shabby.”  That seems like a nice way to put it. Disgraceful seems more appropriate.

The official explanation for Adams’ unceremonious termination is, as government’s so love, a study.

Nelson said the commissioners are going to do a “comprehensive study” of the county’s public defense system. Setting an expiration date for Adams’ services is the first step in that process, she said.

“He may be reappointed,” Nelson said Friday. “Periodic evaluation is something that’s part of the commissioners’ duty.”

After all, when something is working well, doesn’t that demand a study?  Particularly when the person announcing the study is the same person against whom a harassment complaint had been lodged a few weeks before.  Of course, it could very well be accurate, that a study is needed to figure out why the public defender is doing so well. Government can’t run an efficient criminal justice machine when the public defender keeps getting in the way.

And as day follows night, the excuses follow the explanation.

Nelson said the county hopes to complete its study by this fall. At that time, it’s unlikely the commissioners will choose to reappoint Adams.

“They’re just going to put somebody in there who they think they can control,” Adams said.

“These terms aren’t meant to be indefinite,” Nelson said. “People don’t own these offices.”

It’s true that political appointees don’t “own” their offices, but people who do their job well, extremely well, are usually the ones that get to stay in them.  In a rational world, anyway.  But then, doing a job well is a matter of perspective.  The staff in his office rated John Adams’ job performance well, giving him 9 to 10 on a ten scale for his various administrative functions. Some just gave him 10 across the board. He was deeply admired by his people.

Nelson, the accused harasser, didn’t think as well of him.

In a Sept. 30 report of Adams’ job performance, Nelson wrote: “The relationship between you and the board has continued to deteriorate over the last year and there have been several instances where you have communicated with the board members in an angry, disrespectful and unprofessional manner.”

She said he needed improvement in budgeting, “respectful communication,” following “board directives,” attendance, and “timely response in communicating issues and concerns with a concerted effort at internal resolution of conflicts.”

She graded him a “6” in “job understanding” on a scale of one to 10. He got a “5” in job performance, “6” in productivity, “6” in dependability and efficiency, and “3” in cooperation. His overall score was “5,” putting him in the “marginal” range, meaning his performance requires improvement and he needs more than normal supervision.

There is certainly a problem when a public defender, an appointee of a local political body made up of very important people, is accused of the inability to communicate with those very important people except in an “angry, disrespectful and unprofessional manner.”  Then again, when the public defender has been communicating just fine for the past 17 years, and the problem suddenly arises, maybe the very important people have the problem backwards.

Or maybe the complaints are about the wrong problem. John Adams was universally respected by the bench and bar, and his only detractors happened to sit on the board that thought he worked for them.  As the public defender, he thought he worked for the men and women of Kootenai County he was appointed to serve.  He did so with distinction, with honor, with zeal.  He fought for their rights in court, and for the resources to serve them before the tightwads who couldn’t imagine why they should squander money on poor criminals.  Most of all, he didn’t ask “how high” when directed to jump.  That’s downright insubordination.

The article in the  Coeur d’Alene Press offers a lengthy list of people praising John Adams, as lawyer, as public defender, as an honorable man.  Coming on the heels of Gideon’s 50 birthday, when so many opined that the tide is turning, that people are coming to realize that innocent people get convicted and the public defense function may be the only thing that stands between them and a lifetime in prison for a crime they didn’t commit, this offers a very different, very ominous message. 

They ought to build a statue for John Adams in  Coeur d’Alene, Idaho.  Instead, he’s been hung out to dry, cancer and all, for doing his job too well. Believe in happy things all you want, but this is how fragile the defense of the accused can be, a one-line memo way from termination at the hands of a hater.


5 comments on “Firing John Adams

  1. Alex Bunin

    Criminal defense requires independence and righteous indignation. The dilemma of indigent criminal defense is how to maintain both when each offends those who control its funding.

  2. Danq

    John Adams indeed… Dear God I wish that I had his mind.

    The really sad thing is most people won’t even notice the loss.

  3. Greg Lubow

    Unfortunately I suffered the same fate, tho not in such dire circumstances. After 27 years as the Greene Co (NY) PD I was forced out – they changed the job from part time to full time – without even the benefit of a ‘study’ – funded at $72,000 – a salary they knew I could not accept – not with a son in law school and a daughter in college. They botched ‘appointing’ my replacement which led to my brief court ordered reinstatement after a lawsuit, for a time while they ‘did it right’. My last day on the job, 2-14-05, was spent testifying before the Kaye Commission on the Future of Indigent Defense on the evils of political influence in appointments and funding. The ‘new’ PD – a former ADA – was less combative with the legisature – allowing them to move nearly $1 million of State money (over 7 years)that was dedicated to expanding the provision of indigent services into the general fund, while cutting the PD staff. His replacement last year agreed to become the full time PD at a salary less than that of the PD he was replacing – and giving up his own position as the full time chief assistant – they got a chief and the chief assistant for a salary of less than the previous chief.
    If a measure of success is how your enemies view you I think the reputation we had was pretty good – their public comments, over years of battling with various members of the Greene County legislature – were that ‘we did the job too well’ – we provided ‘Cadillac defenses’ to our clients.
    The lack of political will, and in many instances, outright hostility on the state and local level, is despicable.
    The Office of Indigents Legal Services (OILS) is a good first step towards the establishment of qualified and accountable indigent defense services throughout the state.

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