After nearly 14 years with the Floyd County Prosecutor's Office, Abraham Navarro has jumped over to Clark County to serve as chief public defender.
While it may seem like he's switching sides — going from representing the State of Indiana as a deputy prosecutor to representing Clark County's indigent defendants — Navarro said it’s really just a different side of the same coin.
“It’s just a natural progression or a natural evolution of my experience as a lawyer, especially in the criminal justice system,” he said.
Navarro was born in the Philippines and raised in Indianapolis. He graduated from Indiana University with a degree in social behavioral sciences and studied mostly nautical archaeology, including field work on a shipwreck in the Cayman Islands. Between dives, Navarro started noticing a black BMW parked nearby and couldn't help but wonder what the driver in the black suit did for a living. That man turned out to be a government attorney keeping an eye on the project and Navarro's interests were piqued.
When Navarro got home, he took the LSAT and eventually enrolled at Vermont Law School. That following summer, Baker v. Vermont was on the docket. Navarro said the case involved two men who were denied a marriage license. The case was the predecessor to civil unions for same-sex couples.
“And I’m just a first-year law student and I was thinking, ‘Man, what is this? Is this the way law is all the time?’ You know, groundbreaking stuff,” Navarro said. “So it was rather enlightening as far as that goes.”
What started out with a BMW ended up being a “backstage pass to the world,” Navarro said. In that first year he also discovered criminal law, which he said opened his eyes in a whole new way. He would go on to clerk for the Vermont Supreme Court and later for the courts in Fort Wayne. He eventually made his way to the Floyd County Prosecutor's Office and had an eight-month stint as Clark Circuit Court Judge.
Clark County Public Defender Board President Jennifer Culotta said it’s that breadth of experience that led the board to choose Navarro.
“I’m very impressed with him and so was the board,” Culotta said. “My philosophy with Mr. Navarro is, and the board’s was, that we think that he was the most outstanding candidate, and we think he’s going to truly be an excellent chief public defender.”
The chief public defender spot opened up for a second time this year when Amber Shaw’s employment was terminated after just three months in the position. The board fired Shaw following complaints of her private and public defender caseload in Floyd County, among other concerns investigated by the board. Shaw had taken the position after longtime chief public defender Jeffrey Stonebraker died in April.
The three-person board hired Navarro earlier this month and Navarro officially started Monday. One of the first things he did was meet with an indigent client in the morning. Navarro said it was a rewarding experience and he plans to represent Clark County's indigent in addition to his administrative duties for the office.
“Make an example, be the example,” Navarro said about being in the courtroom, adding that he has a staff of 12 “excellent” part-time public defenders. “These folks have been colleagues, mentors, friends, I mean they know what they’re doing in the courtroom. But me being in there is highly important, not just for public confidence but it’s important because I’m one more attorney that can take on numbers (of cases) to help alleviate any issues we may have.”
Navarro sees the challenges ahead of him. He has to manage an overstretched, understaffed office and ensure that people who can’t afford a private attorney are adequately represented by his public defenders. Many of those part-time public defenders also maintain their own private practices. Shaw told the News and Tribune in July that the public defender office is out of compliance with caseload guidelines set by the Indiana Public Defender Commission.
According to the state commission's guidelines, public defenders should only be assigned 60 to 75 new felony cases per year, depending on the amount of support staff. Shaw said in July that one public defender working out of Circuit Court No. 2 — where higher-level drug offenses are handled — was assigned 99 new cases in just one quarter. Although the guidelines aren’t mandatory, compliance qualifies counties to have the state reimburse their budgets by up to 40 percent. Clark County currently receives around $200,000 in reimbursements each year.
In September, Shaw asked the Clark County Council for a $23,000 per year salary increase. That raise to $140,000 from $117,000 would make Clark County eligible for $56,000 in annual reimbursements from the state based on commission guidelines. Clark County Councilman Brian Lenfert said the council was waiting on the chief public defender position to be filled before assessing the office’s budget needs. While the county adopted its 2017 budget last week, Lenfert said it could be adjusted before the state certifies it in February.
“We’ll work with the fiscal body to see what we can do at the county council,” Navarro said. “We'll work with them and let them know what our needs are.”
Shaw said Monday that her firing sets the office back. She had gotten the ball rolling on budget requests and said she already had established relationships with prosecutors, attorneys, judges and the state commission. Last month, Shaw requested the Clark County Commissioners review her termination, a process outlined in the Clark County Government Employee Handbook. Shaw said she has not heard from commissioners since submitting the letter. Commissioner Jack Coffman previously told the News and Tribune that commissioners would forward the letter to the public defender board, the body that voted unanimously to fire Shaw.
“The board reviewed what was provided (to commissioners) and we, the board’s previous decision, was unchanged by the presentation that was provided,” Culotta said.
Shaw said she’s building her private practice back up in Floyd County. She said she will discuss with her attorney about what steps, if any, to take next regarding her termination.
Culotta said she is confident that the board will not have the same issues with Navarro, who said he does not have any cases left in Floyd County, a concern that was raised with Shaw. He declined to comment on Shaw’s termination, referring the subject to the board.
“We’re here to serve the indigent in our community,” Navarro said. “We’re here to help.”