HUDSON–Columbia County changed public defenders with the New Year. Robert Linville, the county’s public defender for almost two decades until the end of the year, “was a wonderful administrator…. I inherited a very competent and dedicated staff,” said his successor, Dominic Cornelius, in phone interviews January 4 and 5.
Public defenders are lawyers appointed to represent defendants who can’t afford to hire a lawyer. In Columbia and other counties in New York state they are appointed and paid by county government.
Mr. Linville was Columbia County’s Public Defender for 18 years and was consistently reappointed by the Board of Supervisors when his term expired. But he said by phone December 30, “about 10 days ago,” one county supervisor, told him the county Republican Caucus “wants the public defender to go in a different direction.” He was not reappointed. Neither the supervisor who spoke to Mr. Linville nor Supervisor Matt Murell (R-Stockport), Chairman of the Board of Supervisors, would comment on the matter. But Mr. Murell did say that the people involved had made a decision “not to renew Mr. Linville” before determining who should replace him.
During Mr. Linville’s tenure the state took over many public defense expenses from the county. One of his last accomplishments was securing a state guarantee to reimburse the county for hiring two additional assistant public defenders to act as counsel for people arrested at night.
The board authorized the creation and filling of the nighttime assistant public defender position on December 13. But Supervisor Patrick Grattan (R-Kinderhook) indicated the hiring is on hold while the state develops a standard for nighttime arraignments.
Mr. Cornelius said his priorities and goals include:
• More contact between attorneys and clients, including clients in the county jail. “Having someone talk to you at length,” he said, can have a positive effect on the outcome of the case. He added, “People have a right to know how their case is progressing. Imagine sitting in jail and hearing nothing about your case”
• Spending time “in the trenches, hands on, in the courtroom with my assistants, as a litigator as well as an administrator.” That was Mr. Cornelius’ practice when public defender of Greene County. The challenge to doing the same with Columbia County, he indicated, is that Columbia has a larger population and caseload.
• “I want the Public Defender’s Office to have the prestige of a large private law firm,” he said.
• “To provide a very competent defense in a cost effective manner,” Mr. Cornelius said, and thanked the Board of Supervisors “for giving me the tools to provide a good defense.”
Mr. Cornelius’ most recent past position was as assistant to the Columbia County Attorney, but his background also includes both public defense and prosecution. Born in Greene County, he got a BA from the College of St. Rose in Albany and studied law at Western Michigan.
From 2002 to 2005 he served as assistant district attorney to Greene County DA Terry Wilhelm; from 2005 to 2012 he was Greene County public defender. From 2012 to 2013 he was assistant district attorney to Columbia County DA Paul Czajka, and from 2014 to 2017 he was assistant Columbia County Attorney.
Mr. Cornelius praised other officials effusively and said, “I’m very humbled, honored and flattered that the Board of Supervisors has placed trust in me,” he said. “The leadership of the Board of Supervisors has been tremendous.”