Rolling with Humboldt’s First Woman DA: What Does She Do?

Maggie Fleming stepped into the historic position as the first female DA (District Attorney) of Humboldt County on January 5. Most people vaguely know she heads the county office that prosecutes criminals but, beyond that, they’re unclear on what her work involves. We shadowed her one day last week to get an idea.

Maggie Fleming, the new Humboldt County District Attorney, greets court regulars by name as she rolls a cart stacked with files from her fourth floor department into the elevator and through the courthouse to her Friday appointment with a judge and the Public Defender’s Office. They meet to set the court calendar. Coordinating the schedules of everyone from witnesses to attorneys so that each can appear when needed requires careful management. Fleming spends a great deal of time organizing details and making sure her department works smoothly with others.  “35% of my work is meetings, 35% is pure administration and the remainder is dealing with criminal cases,” Fleming acknowledges.

maggie swearing

Swearing in Maggie Fleming. [Photo from here.]

Just before the courtroom, she pushes through one of several glass doors. These sandwich the narrow channel through which Correctional Deputies herd incarcerated defendants. Beyond the glass doors but still outside the court in a small waiting room, Fleming chats quietly with other attorneys. A few defendants on the far side of the room shift nervously.

One of these, a sagging, red-faced woman with a mass of neatly pulled back silver hair begins to unravel. She makes several small rushes at the public defender. Not attacking exactly but darting at him like an angry bumblebee. She rumbles loudly and incomprehensibly then retreats mumbling and in tears.

The small crowd tenses in response. Voices drop. People turn sideways to her–on the one hand warily eyeing the possible emotional explosion, on the other hoping they won’t become part of the drama. The public defender, a short bull-like man, rises from a wooden bench and approaches her, scolding in a muted bass. She ducks her head and pushes out her lower lip like a stubborn child but subsides against the wall.

Fleming says later many of the defendants have mental health or addiction issues. In a recent interview with KINS, she said that one of her biggest wishes was for

…more treatment for mental health and substance abuse folks.  I think it would have a huge impact on their lives and our lives….

A lot of people end up in the criminal justice system and we’re not really equipped to deal with those needs.  I think, no matter what happens as far as the outcome of criminal cases, we need to find a solution for the day that they leave the jail….

The courtroom door swings open and a bailiff steps through. First, the attorneys, then the defendants move towards it. Still tense, still vibrating with emotion, the older woman is funneled through the wooden door and into the nearly empty courtroom. Maggie Fleming and the public defender settle files, briefs, and glasses onto one long table at the front of the room facing a raised dais which is topped with the judge’s bench. A clerk and the court reporter flank the dais.

The judge enters. All rise in a wave. Then recede into their seats.

Eventually, scheduling cases begins. Less than a handful of defendants sit in the room. Most cases are just files moved from one side of the judge’s desk to the other as they are addressed. But three are people who stand and move to the front of the room as their names are called.

As one defendant, a woman wearing dirty tennis shoes and tight sparkly jeans comes forward, the silver-haired woman abruptly pushes to the front.

“Excuse me, …I just want to be done with this,” she rasps.

“Ma’am, you need to be quiet,” the bailiff warns. She retreats muttering, “No, YOU need to be quiet.”

Most of the cases move through quickly. Some become a polite struggle. One case involving domestic violence becomes testy–the public defender and Fleming disagreeing on terms of the possible plea bargain. Fleming argues that with the defendant’s record of dropping out of programs, she is unwilling to settle for anything less than some jail time. She points out that the Probation Department views the defendant as dangerous.

Later, Fleming stresses that victim advocacy is an important part of her job. And, she says, unlike many D.A.’s she also feels that she needs to listen to the defendants’ family, too. It helps her “think through what would be the best outcome.”

Fleming also hires new employees and manages the budget. She just brought former Humboldt State University Police Chief Lynne Soderberg onto her team to handle domestic violence cases. Fleming also added three new attorneys to handle misdemeanor cases.

“We hired the attorneys to fill vacancies,” Fleming said. These were “positions we had in the budget since last year,” she explained.  However, she is hoping to add more attorneys with money from Measure Z. Even though the measure expires after five years, Fleming believes that “to deal with the public safety issues, it will require the hiring of more probation officers, more deputy sheriffs and more deputy district attorneys.”

maggie-1With 9000 cases a year, one of the most important tasks of her time in office, Fleming says is to search out a good case management system (CMS,) one that allows information to flow easily between her office, law enforcement and the courts. Ideally, the data base would allow defendant’s cases to be quickly grouped together so that all the issues could be easily seen at once. But finding a good system will be hard. “No two police departments have the same one,” she says pointing out how difficult it is to find one system that not only meets the needs of her department but carries data fluidly between other legal entities.

The rewards though will be great. A good CMS will cut down on overtime, ease the burden on the victim, and provide statistical data in order to make better decisions, Fleming says.

In the courtroom, the older woman’s case is called. Still rumbling, she moves to the front. When the details of the plea deal are being discussed, she doesn’t understand a term being used. Like, a startled bull she blows puffs of air from her red face searching for someone, something to attack. Abruptly, she charges out of the room. The public defender looks after her wearily. Fleming sits quietly but alert to the possible collapse of many weeks’ work to bring the defendant to accept a deal and a program that could help both her and society.

The judge suggests that the public defender “take a break and see if you can catch up with her.”

Eventually, the attorney returns with the woman snuffling and still breathing heavily at his heels. The judge more gently than the proceeding Kafkaesque momentum of the court would suggest possible makes sure her attorney has explained the term. At first she snarls, “I don’t understand it. I just want to be done with it because I’m tired of being here.”

Kindly, slowly, he makes sure she understands–praising her for asking questions. Then he tells her that as long as she “abides by the terms of probation” she will only do time served.

“Will you be able to do that?” he asks.

Looking up through her now somewhat disheveled hair, she says sadly, “I need to…I’m tired.” As she leaves, she weeps quietly, exhausted. “Thank you, sir,” she says. “Have a good day.”

At the end of the session, the public defender leaves. The judge and Fleming run quickly through a series of cases that Fleming says for one reason or another are not able to be prosecuted–witnesses have moved, etc. They must all be dismissed to clean up the system and allow current cases to get the attention they need.

After the last file folder is moved from the pile on the Judge’s bench, she exits the courtroom, rolling the cart through the halls and into an elevator that smells faintly of green marijuana. She doesn’t seem to notice.

Again, she greets almost everyone along the way as she returns to her office. She refers once to the older woman. “The judge handled her well,” she says. “At the core,” she adds, “I always care most about the cases… .”

——————-

Thanks to the Tuluwat Examiner for bringing the KINS interview to my attention and for transcribing the portion I used.

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