History

Founding and Jurisdiction

Though the idea of a centralized Office of the Public Defender to cover the entire state had been bandied about for years, the concept picked up steam when in 1963, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in the landmark case Gideon v. Wainwright that a state had the obligation to provide an attorney for every indigent criminal defendant, a decision that placed an increasingly heavy burden on private attorneys.

The first centralized system of its kind in the United States, New Jersey's Office of the Public Defender (NJOPD) was founded on July 1, 1967 to fulfill the traditional role of providing legal counsel to indigent defendants charged with indictable offenses. The statutory authority for the NJOPD and history of its evolution may be found at N.J.S.A. 2A:158A-1 et seq. . The primary goal of the office, as set forth by the Legislature, has been to ensure that the constitutional guarantees of counsel in criminal cases are met. It provides for an established system by which no innocent person will be convicted because of an inability to afford an attorney and where the guilty will be convicted only after a fair trial. A secondary goal of the statewide system is to spare county and local property-taxpayers the expense of legal representation for indigent defendants.

The NJOPD has served for more than four decades as a model for the delivery of public defense services, and continues to be contacted today by states considering switching to a statewide system. In its criminal-defense function, the NJOPD not only provides legal counsel at the Superior Court trial level in each of the state's 21 counties, but also handles appeals and other ancillary legal proceedings. The NJOPD provides attorneys for indigent criminal defendants in both the adult and juvenile levels of Superior Court, as the result of expanded jurisdiction called for in late 1967. Its attorneys are assigned to 22 regional Public Defender offices. Essex County, because of its size and heavy caseloads, has separate offices for adult and juvenile representation.

Created as an independent executive agency in 1967, the NJOPD was moved into the newly created Department of the Public Advocate in 1974, a move that led to the creation of new programs dealing with specific criminal and civil issues.  When the Department of the Public Advocate was first disbanded in 1997, the NJOPD was moved to become "in but not of" the New Jersey State Treasury Department, where it has remained ever since.

Among the non-criminal sections of the agency is the Office of Law Guardian (OLG), which provides representation to children who are alleged to be victims of abuse and neglect.  It also conducts institutional abuse investigations at residential facilities, group homes and day-care centers operated by the Department of Children and Families.  In mid-1999, as part of the state's move to satisfy federal legislation geared toward speeding the adoption of children placed in foster care, the NJOPD began representing children in so-called "Title 30" cases.  In these cases, the parental rights of biological parents are sought to be terminated if it becomes clear that those parents are unwilling or unable to properly care for their children.  As part of that new mission, the NJOPD also created the Office of Parental Representation (OPR) which provides attorneys for parents in both Title 30 and abuse and neglect cases.  OLG and OPR are kept administratively separate to avoid any appearance of conflict in these cases.

Thus, in addition to providing attorneys to represent individuals charged with indictable offenses in criminal court and delinquency offenses in juvenile court, the NJOPD now also provides attorneys to represent children and parents in abuse and neglect and termination of parental rights cases, provides constitutionally mandated representation for indigent clients at voluntary and involuntary psychiatric commitment hearings, and offers dispute-resolution services that can help parties embroiled in civil litigation reach out-of-court settlements, saving millions of dollars in attorneys fees and court time.

Past Public Defenders


Stanley C. Van Ness

The position of Public Defender in New Jersey has been held by some of the most respected names in the state's legal community. The first Public Defender was Peter Murray, whose untimely death in 1969 led to the appointment of Stanley C. Van Ness by Gov. Richard Hughes.

Prior to his 1969 appointment, Stanley C. Van Ness had been Governor's Counsel and active in national efforts to reform court procedures.  Mr. Van Ness also became the state's first Public Advocate when that agency was created in 1974, and is widely regarded as the architect of the office as it exists today.  Following his tenure with state government as the Public Advocate/Public Defender, he joined the Princeton law firm of Herbert, Van Ness, Cayci and Goodell. Mr. Van Ness received the "Defender of Justice" award by the National Conference for Community and Justice. Mr. Van Ness passed away in 2007 at the age of 73.

 


Joseph H. Rodriguez

In 1982, Joseph H. Rodriguez, a prominent trial attorney and former chairman of the State Commission on Investigation and the Board of Higher Education, succeeded Mr. Van Ness as Public Defender/Public Advocate.   In 1985 he ascended to the position of U.S. District Court Judge, District of NJ, and became the first Latino in New Jersey's history to hold that position.  Judge Rodriguez achieved senior status in 1998. In 1999, Judge Rodriguez received both the "Medal of Honor Award" from the New Jersey State Bar Foundation and the "William J. Brennan Jr. Award" from the Association of Federal Bar of the State of NJ.


Alfred A. Slocum

 

Rutgers Professor Alfred A. Slocum became Public Advocate/Public Defender in 1986, and he championed the causes of the voiceless underclass and the indigent defendant. In 1990 he returned to Rutgers Law School teaching until his retirement in 2001, and sat on the East Orange Municipal Court until 2014.

 

 

 


Wilfredo Caraballo

In 1990, Professor Wilfredo Caraballo, Associate Dean at Seton Hall Law School, was named Public Defender/Public Advocate and served until 1992.   Professor Caraballo represented the 29th Legislative District in the NJ General Assembly from 1996 to 2008. He is currently a tenured Professor at the Seton Hall University School of Law.

 

 

 


Zulima Farber

Zulima V. Farber was the first woman to serve as Public Advocate/Public Defender from 1992 to 1994 in the Cabinet of former Gov. James Florio.   She was appointed Attorney General in Governor Corzine's cabinet in 2006.  Ms. Farber is presently a partner with the law firm of Lowenstein Sandler.

 

 

 


Susan L. Reisner

In 1994, Gov. Christie Whitman appointed Susan L. Reisner to the post of Public Defender.  Ms. Reisner served as Acting Public Advocate and continued to serve as Public Defender until 1997.  Prior to her appointment, she served as Director of the Division of Rate Counsel from 1992-94, Deputy Attorney General from 1978 to 1992 and Chief Counsel on the Board of Regulatory Commissioners from 1989 to 1990.  Appointed to the bench in 1997, Judge Reisner has been an Appellate Division Judge since 2004. 

  


Ivelisse Torres

In 1997, Gov. Whitman appointed Ivelisse Torres to the Public Defender post. Prior to that appointment, Ms. Torres was the Deputy Public Defender in charge of the Ocean County regional office. She was the first career Public Defender to rise to the agency's top post, having started her career as an Assistant Deputy Public Defender in the Camden regional office. Ms. Torres passed away while in office in November 2000. 


Yvonne Smith Segars

 

 

Yvonne Smith Segars, a veteran of the New Jersey Office of the Public Defender since 1985, became Public Defender from 2002 until 2011.  She was appointed to the post while serving as Managing Attorney in the agency's largest office, the Essex Regional Office.  Ms. Segars previously served as bond counsel with the law firm of McManimon & Scotland, LLC.

 

 

 

 

 

Acting Public Defenders


Amy R. Piro

In 1985 Amy R. Piro Chambers served as Acting Public Defender between Judge Rodriguez' departure and Professor Slocum's appointment.  Previously, she served as Assistant Counsel to Governor Byrne in 1979, Assistant Counsel to Governor Kean in 1982, and Deputy Counsel to Governor Kean in 1984.  Judge Chambers was appointed to the Superior Court in May 1986, and became an Appellate Division Judge in 2007.  Judge Chambers retired from the bench in 2010.

 

 

 

 


Thomas S. Smith Jr

Thomas S. Smith Jr., served as Acting Public Defender/Public Advocate before Mr. Caraballo's appointment.  During his 24-year career with the Public Defender's Office, he served in many managerial capacities, including Assistant and First Assistant Public Defender.  He was appointed to the Superior Court in Burlington County in 1997 and served until his retirement in 2009.

 

 

 

 

 

 


David Ben-Asher

David Ben-Asher served as Acting Public Defender between the Caraballo and Farber administrations.  He previously served as Essex County Counsel and as Assistant Commissioner and Director of Litigation in the Department of the Public Advocate. He has served as a member of the New Jersey Supreme Court Committee on Civil Practice.  Mr. Ben-Asher is currently in private practice, specializing in employment law.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 


Peter A. Garcia

Peter A. Garcia was appointed Acting Public Defender after Ms. Torres' death from 2000 to 2002. He previously served as an Assistant Public Defender and Chief Counsel for the agency and is presently a Deputy Attorney General in the Division of Law of New Jersey Law and Public Safety