Editor's Note — As part of our coverage of the Aug. 7 general election, we previewed the public defender race between Mark Blakley and Leif Jeffers in our July 24 edition. See our profile of Jeffers here.
When Mark Blakley got a call in late 2012 — long-time incumbent public defender Martha Yoakum was considering retirement, and would he be interested in the job? — he didn't have to think about it long.
Blakley, who had spent several years working part-time for Yoakum, primarily handling her Fentress County case-load, jumped at the opportunity to fulfill the remainder of Yoakum's term.
"When I handled Fentress County court, I really, really enjoyed it," Blakley said. "I looked forward to Tuesday, when I would go to Fentress County and handle criminal defense cases."
More than a year and a half later, Blakley has no regrets about taking the job.
"It's a good job, and I feel like I've been able to do a lot of good while I've been here," he said."
While Blakley had handled some criminal defense cases over the years, his practice was still primarily civil work. But making the transition to primarily criminal defense — and in the public sector — wasn't so difficult, he said.
"Luckily, we have a great set of attorneys here," Blakley said. "In our office, there are seven attorneys, and we have over 100 years of experience. They were doing a good job to begin with, I changed up some things, and it was a fairly smooth adjustment."
These days, Blakley manages a full schedule, including personal court appearances four days each week. On Monday, he travels to whichever court Judge Shayne Sexton — the Eighth Judicial District's criminal court judge — is holding court. On Tuesday, he's in Fentress County — the same responsibility he had when he worked for Yoakum. On Wednesday, he balances criminal court and drug court and, on Thursday, he is in Claiborne County.
"I'm used to handling a private law practice, (and) this is not as challenging as a private practice," Blakley said. "But it's a job I'm able to make a lot of improvements in, and I think we'll improve more as we go. We're moving forward every day."
Blakley's career pathway to the public defender's office actually began in public education. He followed in the footsteps of his father and spent two years a teacher at Scott High School. And then a friend managed to spin his wheels.
"We were out running and he said, 'Hey, I'm thinking about going to law school. What do you think about that?'" Blakley said. "I got to thinking more about it and I thought, well, I want to try it."
Blakley graduated law school in 1991. He soon sought — and won — the office of Scott County Attorney, which he served for two four-year terms. He has also represented the Towns of Oneida and Winfield, as well as Huntsville Utility District.
The first decade of Blakley's law career was spent with the Baker Donelson firm, after which he became a partner with Stansberry, Petroff, Marcum & Blakley.
"It's fulfilling," Blakley said of criminal defense work. "I enjoy doing this. We do a lot of good. These days, it seems like most of our cases, almost 90 percent, are drug-related. So we spend a lot of time trying to get people into rehab, minimizing jail time and trying to get their life back together."
Since taking on the role of public defender, Blakley has shaken up the office in a variety of ways — including opening new offices in Scott and Claiborne counties.
"When I got to looking at it, we had some courts with too many attorney and we had a couple of courts where our attorneys needed more help," he said. "We rearranged attorneys to have an increased presence in court where we were needed."
In Scott County, Blakley hired Phillip Kazee to handle criminal cases.
"Our clients are poor, and to ask them to travel to Jacksboro is not really reasonable," Blakley said.
The next step was urging the courts to increase the number of cases the public defender's office handled. Some general sessions judges in the districts were assigning public defense cases to private attorneys, Blakley said. He met with each judge in an effort to change that.
"Every time the court appoints an attorney, it costs the taxpayer up to $500 per misdemeanor and $1,000 per felony, and it could be double that if the case isn't resolved in sessions court," Blakley said. "If we're getting cases we're supposed to get, we're saving the taxpayers a lot of money."
Blakley said his office also has an attorney on staff who is certified to handle death penalty cases — a certification that requires more stringent qualifications. Currently, there is one death penalty cases ongoing in the district, involving a Campbell County man accused of murder.
"The last death penalty case handled in this district was in Fentress County, and the attorney's fees were over $150,000," Blakley said. "That's probably the lower end of what attorneys would wind up getting paid on a death penalty case. Since we have one on staff, we are saving the tax payers a lot of money."
The prospects of a looming hard-fought election campaign in five counties gave Blakley cause for consideration when he agreed to accept the appointment of Gov. Bill Haslam to the public defender's seat. But, he decided, the risks were worth it.
"Five counties is just a very difficult obstacle," he said. "It's tough to travel five counties and campaign. And it's not just time-consuming, it's expensive."
Those obstacles, as it turned out, were part of what kept competition in this year's election low. Blakley is opposed by fellow Scott Countian Leif Jeffers, but no one from any of the district's other four counties.
"The higher-level attorneys, they don't need or want the job, because they do better in private practice, and the newer attorneys don't usually have the time or resources to campaign," he said.
As he and Jeffers gear up for the Aug. 7 election, Blakley points to the improvements that have been made since he took office and said he looks to continue on a similar path.
"I've worked hard to earn the voters' trust, and hopefully I've shown them that I'm a good bet to continue to work and provide a defense that most public defenders won't," he said. "We take it to a higher level."