After 16 years, Stephen Shankman is leaving his post as federal public defender. He sent his notice to the U.S. Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals in Cincinnati earlier this month saying he wants to opt out of another possible appointment by the appeals court to a new four-year term.
“I’m fine. There are no health issues,” he said this week, the day after the notice for applicants was posted on the website of the U.S. District Court for West Tennessee. “It’s just time.”
His successor will be appointed by the U.S. Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals.
The qualifications include at least five years of criminal law practice experience preferably with lots of federal criminal trial experience. And whoever gets the appointment cannot maintain a private law practice while serving as federal public defender.
Applications are due by June 15 at the office of the circuit executive in Cincinnati.
The defender oversees a staff of 10 assistant defenders as well as a staff of investigators and administrative assistants. The annual salary is $155,500, which is the same pay as the U.S. Attorney for the Western District of Tennessee.
“I’ve told the court that I will stay on until someone else is selected and ready to come on board,” Shankman said. “The effective date is kind of up in the air because that process could tax six to eight months – the process and background checks and all of that kind of thing.”
The defender’s job wasn’t new to Shankman when he was appointed in 1996. Before having a private practice, he had served as an assistant defender for six years.
“Things have just changed so much over the years from the days when the federal courts focused on really, really large scale drug matters, political corruption cases, major fraud stuff,” he said. “We’re now doing street crime and low level stuff that belongs in state court. It’s a bit frustrating quite frankly. We’re dealing with stuff that in my younger days we never would have handled.”
In those days, the major violent crime handled on a regular basis by federal courts was bank robbery. There might be some cases of civil rights violations as part of the mix.
But the mix changed in the 1990s when Congress added statutes that made some types of carjacking federal crimes. The caseload took another jump with the dawn of Operation Triggerlock, the federal effort that targeted for federal prosecution convicted felons in possession of guns after they had served their prison time. The cases still dominate the dockets of federal court judges in the Western District and elsewhere.
The federal system’s foray into violent street crimes remains a topic of debate within the legal community and even law enforcement.
“Congress went nuts in terms of thinking that they could pick up everything and they’ve turned our federal courts into state courts, which I find most regrettable,” Shankman said. “It has caused a severe increase in personnel everywhere because the more cases they pull in – that I think belong in state court – the more clerks you’ve got to have, the more AUSAs (assistant U.S. Attorneys) that start getting hired, the more defenders that are needed to handle cases. Staffing goes up everywhere. And I find that unfortunate.”
As the chief federal defender, Shankman has taken a hands-on role, showing up at initial hearings to supervise representation for some of the many cases that feature multiple defendants – another change he’s witnessed in his years in the courtroom.
“Multiple defendant cases were not the things that we saw years ago – certainly not to this level,” he said. “When that happens now, legally and ethically we can only take one defendant in those cases. The rest of them that need appointments are all handled through the Criminal Justice Act.”
The act provides for the appointment by the court of private counsel with specific guidelines about their pay and other conditions as court appointed counsel.
Shankman told his staff he believes it is time for “new blood” in the office. And his first thought on his life is it will also involve something new as well.
“I don’t expect to be back in practice,” he said. “I think we’re headed off in some other direction – not sure what that direction is.”