"I think I've had seven public defenders in the ten years I've been on the bench." That is Circuit Court Judge Tim Weaver's way of saying he's been here before -- as he waits for the Arkansas Public Defender Commission to appoint a new attorney to represent clients charged with felony crimes in Fulton and Izard Counties who cannot afford an attorney.
Mountain Home defense attorney John Russo, who took the public defender's job in October of 2011, left the post this September to serve as a public defender in Baxter County.
"A person was hired and appeared in court last month, but he lasted just one day," Weaver said.
"He decided the job was not the right career choice and he quit," Jim Pettigo diplomatically added as the two talked on Monday, Dec. 3 in the Judge's chambers, during a break in Fulton County's monthly criminal court session.
Pettigo is a retired public defender who has been filling in in Fulton County as criminal cases have been called the last two months, but his role is limited.
"If someone wants to make a plea, Mr. Pettigo can handle that, but he can't take cases that are going to go to trial," Judge Weaver said.
With new defendants coming before Weaver every month and requesting a public defender and most existing cases not moving forward, the criminal court system in Fulton and Izard Counties is backing up.
"We've got probably 100 (criminal) cases pending," Weaver said.
"We've filed more than 100 felony cases in Fulton County alone, so far in 2012," Prosecutor Dwayne Plumlee said.
"I loved the job but they wouldn't buy me a helicopter," Shane Ethridge explained in August of 2011, when he quit as Fulton and Izard County's public defender. Ethridge lived in Hot Springs and said the long drives for local court sessions just wore him down.
Judge Weaver said the public defender before Ethridge had the same complaint. That attorney lived in Jonesboro.
According to Weaver, Russo did a good job and he was hopeful that he would stay on longer since he lived in a neighboring county, but the Baxter County job opening kept Russo closer to home.
According to Pettigo, the Public Defender Commission has checked with attorneys in the area about the current opening but no one has been interested in accepting the job.
As noted by Weaver in 2011, not having a public defender puts a lot of pressure on the court. One of the Judge's jobs is to keep cases moving through the system, since most cases must be settled within a year under Arkansas law.
As in the past, the judge can only hope the Public Defender Commission comes up with a new hire soon.