Ulster legislators nix Ryan’s pick for public defender, citing lack of experience in criminal law

Lauren Sheeley

The appointment of Lauren Sheeley as Ulster County public defender was rejected by a 14-9 vote in the legislature last week. Voting against County Executive Pat Ryan’s choice crossed party lines, with the primary issue the candidate’s lack of criminal law and courtroom experience. 

“It is uncontested the candidate lacks any criminal experience, trial or otherwise,” said Legislator Tracey Bartels (Unenrolled- Gardiner) prior to casting a vote against the appointment. “The candidate before us is not qualified to weigh in on the substantive issues involved, much less to handle those cases. We cannot afford to allow the candidate to learn on the job. There’s too much on the line. The stakes are too high. Ulster County deserves a qualified chief public defender.”

Sheeley has been Ulster County’s first assistant county attorney since last September, previously serving as the attorney in charge of Legal Services of the Hudson Valley, a White Plains-based firm providing pro bono legal representation for individuals and families who cannot afford an attorney. 

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“I don’t think she has the experience to demand the top spot,” said Legislator Al Bruno (R- Saugerties). 

Legislator Eve Walter (D- New Paltz) said she also believed Sheeley lacked the experience necessary to serve as chief public defender for the county. 

“We have the opportunity right now to achieve excellence in one of the most important leadership roles in criminal justice,” Walter said. “The chief public defender is the first responder charged to protect (indigent) individuals when brought to trial and must be skilled and confident to do so…My decision against this appointment is related solely to the legal history and defined purpose of the chief public defender and a vision for public legal defense in our county in the midst of criminal justice reform, Black Lives Matter and COVID.”

Fellow Democrat Peter Criswell (Kingston) voted in favor of the appointment, saying Sheeley had the necessary skills to effectively manage the entire office. 

“Critics of this appointment are saying that Ms. Sheeley lacks criminal trial experience,” Criswell said. “That’s true. But I believe she makes up for that with her overall ability to direct the operations of this office overseeing a team of approximately 13 criminal court attorneys, seven family court attorneys, as well as nearly a dozen admin staff.”

Also voting in favor of Sheeley’s appointment was Republican Legislator and minority leader Kenneth Ronk Jr. (Shawangunk).

“I think that Ms. Sheeley’s qualifications far outweigh the qualifications that she’s lacking,” he said. 

Much of the public comment prior to the vote on the appointment was devoted to support of Sheeley, including Assistant County Attorney Robert Fisher. 

“I think it’s an absurd idea to think that the chief public defender of the county should be routinely trying felony cases,” said Fisher. “The purpose of the person in that position is to manage, supervise and lead an office. And I think that Ms. Sheeley is highly, highly qualified to do that.”

Michael Berg, executive director of Family of Woodstock, also expressed support for Sheeley. 

“We have mutually-referred clients, we’ve worked together on a number of cases,” Berg said. “I can confirm that she’s certainly devoted, dogged in her fighting for her clients, a skilled attorney, very organized, and ran a very tight ship while she was at Legal Services.”

But the support was not enough to sway the votes in Sheeley’s favor, leaving Democrat Ryan 120 days to nominate another candidate for the position; he cannot present Sheeley as an option again. 

After the appointment of Sheeley was rejected, Ryan released a statement confirming his support of Sheeley while promising to continue his search for a new public defender for the county. 

“The past few months have illustrated the perils and far-reaching effects of generations of injustice in our country,” Ryan said in his statement. “As many call for necessary changes to our justice system, one of the most vital offices in bringing about these reforms is through the Public Defender. During this pivotal moment, we must appoint to this office a proven leader with the passion, expertise, and grit to tirelessly and effectively advocate for the most vulnerable members of our community. I nominated Lauren Sheeley because, along with numerous community leaders and advocates, I had full confidence that she would be that leader for our County and would guide the Public Defender’s Office with integrity, compassion, and immense skill. Moving forward, I am committed to finding the absolute best leader for this office and ensuring the community’s voice helps to guide my decision.”

Sheeley was nominated by Ryan in June to take over for former Public Defender Andrew Kossover, who the county executive fired in February after claiming Kossover failed to submit requests for state reimbursement of roughly $2.5 million.

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