Public Defender David Dunn of the Lookout Mountain Judicial Circuit is retiring after holding the position since 2005, when the state of Georgia created the public defender system and opened the office in Northwest Georgia.
Dunn said Jad Johnson — who has also been with the program since its start — will be the interim public defender and that he hopes Johnson is given the full-time job.
Dunn, 62, graduated from law school in 1983 and was hired in the Lookout Mountain Judicial Circuit, where he worked in a local district attorney's office for five years. He was the chief assistant district attorney and later went into private practice in Rossville before opening up his own firm from 1997 until 2004.
The Georgia Legislature created the public defender system in 2003. Dunn was hired and started working in July 2004. For six months he and a small team got the office together, and they started handling cases in January 2005.
Before that, Dunn said, the public defender system in Georgia was unorganized and something needed to change.
"Back then you might get a good lawyer or you might get someone who didn't care," Dunn said on the pre-2005 era. "I wanted to create a system that would take care of people and have good people on the ground floor. It was exciting to be there in its infancy and watch it grow from the young years to a really mature agency."
Early on, counties in Northwest Georgia understood the office Dunn was running and the necessity of it.
"We have 3,000 case files a year. The counties stepped up for additional attorneys and staff to make it work," Dunn said. "Now I have ten lawyers as opposed to three and additional administrative staff. Counties stepped up to the plate but they did it out of necessity. The system would have crashed, and it wouldn't have worked."
Dunn said he has been thinking about retirement for a while and feels like this is the right time to step aside. Creating the public defender's office, hiring attorneys and getting the program off the ground has "probably been the greatest challenge of my career," he said.
Dunn made the decision to step down and told colleagues before the coronavirus outbreak hit Georgia. He thought about delaying his retirement because of the shutdowns but decided to stick to his original plan.
"Whoever takes over is going to have a lot of challenges," he said. "The budget issue is going to be severe. it's going to affect everyone in state and local government."
Dunn said the office in the Lookout Mountain Judicial Circuit is one of the best in the state.
The state of Georgia has told state agencies to expect at least a 14% budget cut across the board. For local public defender offices, that means a possibility of losing attorneys who would otherwise be trying important cases.
Johnson said Dunn's retirement will not only be Northwest Georgia's loss but the entire state's.
"David has been a giant in the Georgia indigent defense community," Johnson said. "Public defenders from all over Georgia can tell David Dunn stories because he has been a teacher for them statewide."
Johnson recalled a story from six or seven years ago when the Glynn County Public Defender's Dffice, in the southeastern part of the state, was having issues with administration and leadership. State officials tapped Dunn to fix it, and for a brief time he filled both public defender positions.
"David was called in to basically right the ship even though he was the furthest away," Johnson said. "That speaks to the esteem the public defender community has for him. It goes without saying there will be a huge hole when he leaves."
Johnson said he hopes he'll be the one to fill Dunn's position, but he feels that normal sense of sadness and trepidation "when your venerated, strong leader is finally stepping down."
Dunn isn't officially retiring from law. He'll be moving to a private practice to work with one of the most renowned attorneys in the state and the nation, Summerville, Georgia's Bobby Lee Cook.
"Most of my experience with Mr. Cook came when I was a prosecutor. He was by far the most prominent defense attorney in the area at the time, and I really got to cut my teeth against him," Dunn said. "As a prosecutor I learned a lot from him quickly."
Dunn will work at the Cook & Connelly law firm out of Summerville.
"The plan is to slow down a bit," Dunn said. "Hopefully I'll be able to spend more time out of the office, more time with my wife, traveling, getting out and enjoying life. We'll see how that works."
Contact Patrick Filbin at firstname.lastname@example.org or 423-757-6476. Follow him on Twitter @PatrickFilbin.