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Melissa Vickers

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Democratic Candidate, Public Defender

Public Service

Office of the Public Defender, 2001-2019

Occupation

Criminal Defense Attorney

Education

  • Nova Southeastern University, J.D. , 1998

  • University of South Florida, B.A. in Communications, B.A. in Criminal Justice, 1995

“I am the one, every day, standing in court next to somebody defending their rights,” criminal defense attorney Melissa Vickers, 51, said at a recent Democratic campaign event in West Orange County.


That’s why she’s running for the job of top public defender for the Ninth Judicial Circuit for Orange and Osceola Counties, she told VoxPopuli in an interview.


Public defenders represent youthful offenders, indigent people who can’t afford legal representation in criminal cases and others with mental health and addiction issues.


The granddaughter of a Jacksonville judge and the daughter of a Jacksonville assistant public defender, Vickers said that she was “down for the cause” to defend those without the means to defend themselves in court. The Winter Park mom of twin boys in college described being a public defender as “a calling” and “a passion.”


Vickers faces fellow Democrat and defense attorney Lenora Eastman Aug. 20. Regardless of who wins, it will be the first time a woman will run the Public Defender’s Office.


Early voting takes place Aug. 5 through Aug. 18. Check our list for locations. Mail-in ballots begin shipping to voters July 15. The deadline to request a mail-in ballot is Aug. 8. and it must be received by 5 p.m Nov. 5. at the Orange County Supervisor of Elections office at 119 Kaley Street in Orlando.


Currently an associate with the criminal defense firm Mandell Law in Orlando and board-certified in criminal defense, Vickers has worked in public defense for more than 20 years. She started right out of law school working as a public defender for the Seventeenth Judicial Circuit in Fort Lauderdale. In 2001, she joined the Public Defender’s Office in the Ninth Judicial Circuit for Orange and Osceola Counties, handling felony cases. She spent the next 18 years in the office that she now wants to lead, working her way up through the ranks to become chief assistant public defender, the office’s second in command, in 2017.


“I've done literally every part of the job at this office that you can do,” she said.


Sixteen past presidents of the Orange County Bar Association have endorsed Vickers as have several local politicians, including Orlando Mayor Buddy Dyer and Democratic State Reps. Anna V. Eskamani, Rita Harris and Tom Keen.


"The best attorneys I know either worked alongside or under the guidance of Melissa Vickers,” Rachel Mattie, president of the Central Florida Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers said, in endorsing Vickers.


Vickers also posted endorsements from dozens of former colleagues who have praised her legal and management skills —including one who called her the “glue that held the office together.” 


Vickers, who won the straw poll held during the July 11 Hob Nob, hosted by the African American Chamber of Commerce of Central Florida, has specific ideas for how she wants the Public Defender’s Office to operate. Here’s what she plans to do if elected:


Offer more attorney training

“Our Constitution says everybody can have a lawyer if they can't afford one. I think that everybody deserves to have a good lawyer, not just a lawyer,” Vickers said. To that end, she wants to reinstitute the continuing legal education that keeps attorneys current on new laws and changes in laws, which she said has “fallen off” since she left the office in 2019.

“When new lawyers come in, they do a week-long training. But after that week-long training, they don't really get more training, and they need to have more training, because law is always changing. When I was in management, we were training all the time. If we can train young lawyers to be good advocates for people, it's a good service to our community.”


Provide better customer service

Vickers pointed to Chick-fil-A and Publix as prime examples of good customer service. “It’s always My pleasure to help you. Just because we’re a state agency doesn’t mean clients don’t deserve good customer service,” she said.


“I want to create an office where the clients feel worthy, where the clients feel taken care of and confident in our services. And I think that starts with the customer service relationship that we can give the client.”


In practice, she said, that means countering the perennial My lawyer never called me back complaint by making lawyers’ direct office phone numbers and emails accessible; changing outgoing voice messages to alert callers when attorneys are in court; and mandating that calls be returned within 24 hours. “It's not unreasonable, and clients deserve that.”


It also means bringing in DEI (diversity, equity and inclusion) officers for the Orange and Osceola offices. “It's important to have diverse representation to meet the needs of the clientele.”


Hold attorneys accountable

Vickers talked about re-starting an electronic case management system that allows managers to audit attorneys’ caseloads: Is an attorney communicating with their client? Are they visiting the jail? Are they filing motions? “I think the auditing has lapsed, and it needs to come back because that holds attorneys accountable. It’s important to have accountability because we’re public servants.”


Partner with other criminal justice departments

As chief assistant public defender, Vickers attended meetings with other criminal justice partners including the state attorney’s and sheriff’s offices, courthouse security and chief judge. “I think that’s been lacking recently,” she said. “We need to get back to that because when we all work together, administratively at the top, you can get things accomplished.”

Vickers said one of the biggest assets she brings to the job is her network of relationships, built over two decades in the Ninth Judicial Circuit’s Public Defender’s Office.


“I can call the chief judge, I can call the state attorney and say Hey, we’ve got an issue. What are we going to do about it? It's really important to know who you're talking to and have that level of trust because they know me, and they know that if they call me with an issue, they know I'm going to pay attention to it, and they know I'm going to help fix it. Having that level of respect and trust for each other is something that doesn't just come with your title. It comes with building relationships. And I think that I have those relationships already built.”


— Norine Dworkin

Norine Dworkin
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