Colleagues gathered together at the Main Street Bourbon and Ale House Thursday, Dec. 27, after a day of work.
Oldham District Court Judges Diana Wheeler and Jerry Crosby were there, Oldham Circuit Court Judge Karen Conrad was too and so was Oldham County Attorney John Carter amongst many others.
This wasn’t a law conference, or panel featuring judges and attorneys; it was a retirement party for Elizabeth Curtin, who’s served as a public defender for nearly 30 years.
She got her start as a public defender in the early 1990s with Louisville Metro before coming to La Grange and leading the office here. Curtin said her career as a public defender was one she didn’t expect. A course she took in law school changed her perspective on the law and she realized she wanted to focus on a more holistic approach to break the cycle of criminality.
For her, breaking this cycle means taking victories in seeing a client graduate from drug court and being able to see them living their life.
“It’s great, it makes it worthwhile,” she said.
Curtin spent the afternoon at the Main Street restaurant chatting with current and former colleagues as she intermittently reflected on her career as a public defender.
Rodney Barnes, the Department of Public Advocacy’s Bluegrass Regional Manager, said he met Curtin when he started at Louisville Metro and she showed him around. He said he was unable to say enough great things about her, and it would be difficult to replace the amount of institutional knowledge she has.
“She’s always been a really tough, passionate advocate,” Barnes said.
In Kentucky, public defenders are overseen by the DPA. Any “needy” or “indigent” person who is charged with a crime that carries a penalty of jail time, or a fine of $500 or more, is entitled to a public defender. State law defines such a person as someone who is unable to provide for the payment of an attorney and other necessary expenses of legal representation.
A common refrain about public defenders, in Kentucky and elsewhere, is they’re overworked and underpaid, and there’s truth to that.
During fiscal year 2018, the DPA received four percent of funding from the state Justice and Public Safety Cabinet. Of the $1.6 million the cabinet budgeted, this amounts to the DPA having received around $58 million to handle nearly 200,000 cases.
Additionally, the caseload handled by Kentucky public defenders has long been above the national average, according to a 2018 DPA report. The La Grange office, which services Oldham, Trimble, Henry and Shelby counties, has four attorneys who, on average, handled 537 cases per attorney during the 2018 fiscal year.
Curtin recalled many Thursdays in court, starting her day at 8 a.m. meeting with clients and many times not finishing until 6 or 7 p.m. that night, just to start all over again.
Crosby, the chief judge of the 12th District, said he knew Curtin to always get straight to the point in her cases, which she often had to do due to the high caseload she managed. Crosby said her retirement would leave a void in the courtroom.
“She’s been a stalwart for our criminal defendants,” he said.
Curtin’s retirement, she says, comes from the uncertainty surrounding Kentucky’s pension system.
Kentucky’s pension bill, Senate Bill 151, which was a sewage bill that later had pension reform tacked onto it, was signed by Governor Matt Bevin in April of this year. Attorney General Andy Beshear filed a lawsuit challenging the law and oral arguments in the case were made before the Kentucky Supreme Court in September.
Recently, the Kentucky Supreme Court unanimously struck down the pension bill on the procedural grounds in which it passed the legislature. In response, Bevin called a special session earlier this month in an attempt to pass a reform bill. The session adjourned just a little over 24 hours later with nothing passed.
Teachers have seized a lot of the attention when it comes to pension reform, but state workers would also be affected by any changes.
According to the Herald-Leader, the state government’s primary pension fund has about $2 billion in assets and $15.6 billion in liabilities as of June 30. The Kentucky Employees Retirement System fund is considered one of the worst-off public pension funds in the U.S., according to Frontline PBS.
“Do it now before they change it,” Curtin said in response to the pension being a factor in her retirement.
When asked if there has been a case that has really stuck with her over the years, she couldn’t name one because there were too many. A recent case she handled involved a young kid who was sentenced to prison — she cried but, he didn’t. She was sorrowful about a life that would ultimately be changed by prison time.
“The ones that you lose are the hardest,” she said.
She said she’s nervous about retiring and unsure what the future holds for her. Kicking it off though, she plans to clean up her home and take down the Christmas tree.
After that her future is wide open, and reflecting back she remains steadfast in the job she accomplished.
“I’ve never had regrets doing what I do,” Curtin said.