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Ex-public defender to lead Judicial Council

Last modified: 10/17/2012 12:00:00 AM
When he became a lawyer two decades ago, Chris Keating wanted to defend people too poor to afford an attorney. Now he'll be responsible for the entire state system that protects their legal rights.

Keating, the executive director of the New Hampshire Public Defender, succeeds Nina Gardner next week as the next executive director of the Judicial Council. The council manages the state's budget for legal services for the poor - a duty that will differ from Keating's current position overseeing 120 attorneys who provide those services.

But the job involves more than administering a budget: Keating will have to advocate for it. Last year, the Legislature dealt cuts that forced Gardner - who is retiring after 24 years overseeing the council - to make difficult decisions, including no longer paying for guardians ad litem in marital cases and attorneys for parents accused of abuse and neglect. The latter cut was challenged before the state Supreme Court, which ruled that parents have a limited right to representation in abuse and neglect cases.

In a recent interview, Keating said he hasn't yet considered exactly how he'll handle those pressures. But Gardner and others who have worked with him said his measured demeanor, experience managing a program with a less-than-lavish budget and dedication to indigent defense have suited him for the task.

'He's lived what he believes in,' Gardner said.

For Keating, the role represents another avenue to build on the mission that has defined his career. 'I don't want to give anyone the impression that I think I can do the job that Nina Gardner did over the years,' he said.

'But if I can come anywhere close to what she's been able to do, then there's an opportunity to make a continuing difference in our state's ability to provide decent, honorable representation to the poor,' he said.

Growing up in the North Country, Keating, now 48, became a lawyer because he 'wanted to find some way to be of service to my community.' After graduating from the University of Maine School of Law, he joined the New Hampshire Public Defender in 1992, starting in the program's Keene office.

He moved to the office serving Grafton County in 1994, and about two years later opened the Littleton office when the program expanded to cover Coos County.

'The job was always overwhelming,' Keating said.

But he was drawn to the difficulty of it. When he took a job in the counsel's office at Dartmouth College, he didn't stay long.

'It was a great opportunity, but sort of adrenaline-free,' Keating said. 'I always felt Dartmouth didn't need my help.'

He returned to the public defender program as its deputy director, chosen for the role by then-executive director Michael Skibbie.

Skibbie, now the policy director at the Disabilities Rights Center, said he picked Keating, 'a very good public defender in his own right,' because he believed he would be a good leader of trial lawyers.

But Skibbie also thought Keating had political skills and the capacity to manage relationships within state government. The public defender program 'is not the kind of institution that is going to have a lot of natural allies,' Skibbie said.

'People who are familiar with the workings of a good criminal justice system know that an effective public defender is a very important ingredient to that, but the public at large is not generally inclined to be supportive of the lawyers for people who are accused of crimes,' he said.

Keating, who took over for Skibbie in 2001, said that in his experience, the Legislature has respected the principles behind the public defender program. 'Maybe it's the Live Free or Die thing, but they all seem to understand and embrace the constitutional mandate of providing counsel for the accused,' he said.

While the budget for the public defender program has been 'buffeted by the same winds that everyone else has,' Keating said it's been 'adequately funded to do the job we need to do.'

The biggest challenge he's faced, he said, is that 'there are real consequences to criminal justice decisions that we make. We decide to prosecute a case as a capital case. Or we want to involuntarily civilly commit dangerous sexual predators. Or we want to limit where people convicted of certain crimes can work or live.

'It all makes the practice of criminal defense, indigent criminal defense, harder and more complicated,' Keating said.

Keating has been able to balance those complications within his budget constraints, Gardner said. She pointed to his work several years ago to create a Class B misdemeanor classification. Defendants accused of that level of offense don't face jail time - and as a result, aren't entitled to lawyers.

The change, which Keating worked on with Administrative Judge Edwin Kelly, has saved the state 'thousands and thousands of dollars,' Gardner said.

Keating, she said, 'understands you need to spend resources on the matters that most need them. Resources are not unlimited.'

Keating starts his new job Monday, while Gardner's last day is tomorrow. The public defender program has been conducting a national search for Keating's replacement.

(Maddie Hanna can be reached at 369-3321 or mhanna@cmonitor.com or on Twitter @maddiehanna.)


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