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Macomb names county public defender to 'balance' prosecutor's power


James David Dickson   | The Detroit News

New Baltimore — Thomas Tomko, the man hired in March as the administrator of the Macomb County Office of Public Defender, will transition to a new role as public defender, the county announced Friday.

Tomko was sworn in by Macomb Circuit Court's Chief Judge James Biernat Jr. at a brief ceremony Friday morning at 42-2 District Court in New Baltimore.

Mark Hackel, Macomb County executive, said the county has envisioned the public defender office for more than a decade, and wrote the idea into its 2008 charter.

“We needed to have a balance” between the power of the state, which prosecutes cases, and the people charged with crimes, Hackel said.

“The system doesn’t work unless you have roughly equal litigants on either side,” said James Maceroni, a judge in Macomb Circuit Court who came out for Tomko’s swearing-in. 

The prosecution, Maceroni said, has “limitless” investigative resources via police agencies they work with.  

For too long, Hackel and the judges agreed, court-appointed attorneys in Macomb didn’t have comparable access to investigators and experts, putting defendants at a disadvantage.

Now, Tomko said, “all it takes is a request."

“This was well overdue, for decades,” Hackel said.

Tomko has hired two defense attorneys from private practice: Elisha Oakes, who will work out of the 42-1 District Court in Romeo, and Adrian Cranford, who will work out of the 42-2 courthouse in New Baltimore.

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Thomas Tomko is sworn in as head of the Macomb County Public Defender's Office, a counterbalance to the county's Prosecutor's Office.

Cranford said it was important for defendants to know their attorney supports them.  

“I’m in your corner,” Cranford said, speaking as if meeting a client for the first time at the jail. “Let’s develop a plan.”

Oakes said that “people not being represented properly” was one of the biggest problems in the justice system, and one worth leaving private practice to address.

Judge Bill Hackel of the 42-2 District Court said the defender's office would “improve overall representation” in the county, not just for people represented by it. 

Tomko said that in addition to a streamlined, easy process for the 250 attorneys on the county’s court-appointment roster to request funds for experts and investigators, the county office would hold continuing education seminars. Office staffers and attorneys on the roster will teach the seminars.

Hackel said attorneys on the court-appointment roster will “have to compete” for spots on it. 

Maceroni said that ideally, every attorney on the list would be all-in as a criminal defender. He does not believe cases should be given to attorneys “dabbling in criminal law.”

Tomko’s deputies are wrapping up cases they had before assuming the positions, and are expecting to start at their courthouses on Nov. 30, the Monday after Thanksgiving.