Marin County Public Defender David Sutton experienced a rough childhood in San Francisco’s Western Addition. By high school, he had managed to get himself into some trouble. It probably saved him.
Raised by a single mother diagnosed with bipolar disorder, Sutton and his sister spent time in foster homes or staying with family. When he was eight years old, his sister was permanently removed from the home.
“My mother had pretty significant mental health issues,” Sutton said. “Oftentimes, she would be voluntarily or involuntarily hospitalized.”
His father left when Sutton was six months old. As a child, Sutton never knew him.
In the mid-’90s, prompted by Sutton’s wayward behavior after entering high school, his mother sent him to live with an uncle who was a police officer in Riverside County. Influenced by his strict uncle, Sutton toed the line.
Sutton’s aunt, who was a labor and employment attorney, also provided motivation. He began to realize he had other options in life, including becoming a lawyer.
“A lot of my aunt’s guidance, specifically through undergrad and law school, helped keep my eyes on the prize,” Sutton said. “I have no doubt that I wouldn’t be a public defender but for adults intervening throughout my life and throughout my career.”
Early in law school at the University of San Francisco, Sutton considered working at a large law firm to earn the big bucks because “poverty sucks,” he said. Yet, he abandoned those plans and chose instead to work as a public defender.
For Sutton, it boils down to doing meaningful work. Helping people justifies logging in 60 to 80 hour weeks. Sutton harkens back to his rocky, impoverished youth as his inspiration.
“The reason I became a public defender is to help individuals who have experienced the same things that I have or are dealing with the same kind of mental health issues that my mother dealt with,” Sutton said. “That became my calling—really trying to effect change for individuals who find themselves in dire situations and may not have had the mentorship or the intervention I did. It’s my way of honoring my background and who I am, while also making sure that I’m paying forward the opportunities that I was afforded.”
Sutton’s route to lead the Marin County Public Defender’s Office was circuitous. In the summer of 2006, and continuing throughout most of law school, he worked as an intern in the department. After a short stint in Alameda County’s public defender’s office, Sutton returned to the Marin office as a misdemeanor attorney, but only stayed for about a year-and-a-half.
Lured to Los Angeles in 2010 by an offer from the largest federal public defender’s office in the country, Sutton remained there for 10 years, working his way up the ladder. Eventually, he became the trial chief, managing dozens of attorneys.
Still, Sutton has always considered the Bay Area his home. Last year, when Marin came knocking at his door to manage the public defender’s office, he didn’t think twice.
“Given the opportunity to return to Marin and steward the office that basically gave me my start, I jumped at it,” Sutton said. “I built what I think is an extremely strong legal foundation—a foundation for public defense—to come back and lead the office.”
The Marin County Public Defender’s Office has always provided excellent legal services, according to Sutton. Today, he’s building on that base with the 42-person department he manages.
“We’re staying on the cutting edge and pushing the envelope with litigation,” Sutton said. “We’re addressing our client’s needs after they’re released from jail or prison by ensuring they’re not repeat clients. We’re addressing housing, using Clean Slate events to get rid of historical convictions and looking at the decarceration of current inmates through changes in the penal code.”
Another goal of the department is to keep people out of handcuffs in the first place and help change their stations in life. Sutton works to find funding sources to support those efforts.
People who can’t afford an attorney are referred to the Marin County Public Defender’s Office. Their cases run the gamut, including felonies, misdemeanors and sometimes infractions, which aren’t criminal offenses. In addition, public defenders represent people when there is an attempt to place them under a conservatorship for allegedly posing a danger to others or being unable to care for their own basic needs. The department also serves juveniles.
The responsibilities of directing the office are plentiful, yet Sutton finds time to carry his own caseload. However, he takes the low-profile cases because he doesn’t believe the lead public defender should be chasing headlines.
“I still love being a lawyer,” Sutton said. “I’m an administrator, but I represent clients as well.”
Sutton sings the praises of the team, emphasizing it’s not just the attorneys keeping the office humming along. From the legal support staff, who are the first contact with the public, to the drug and alcohol recovery coach, everyone works long hours to ensure that their clients’ rights are protected.
While the Marin County Public Defender’s Office protects their clients’ constitutional and statutory rights through traditional representation on the court floor, it also provides holistic legal representation to the community, according to Sutton. The staff even takes their services outside the office, meeting people where they live.
“This isn’t just a mission statement, but something that we’re truly honoring,” Sutton said. “What does a trip to the Civic Center mean in your life in terms of timing? Maybe you don’t have a car or you have child care issues.”
Sutton and his team collaborate with the Marin County District Attorney’s Office to address legal issues in the community. The two departments work together on Clean Slate, a program that aims to seal and expunge a person’s prior criminal record, which removes barriers to employment, housing and educational opportunities.
Although public defenders and district attorneys are often adversaries in court, Sutton says he speaks with DA Lori Frugoli and Assistant DA Otis Bruce on a regular basis. Frugoli includes Sutton on some of her calls and meetings with the community. The two offices try to work out compromises on cases.
The Marin County Jail and the Public Defender’s Office also routinely communicate, especially during the pandemic.
“The jail captain has been a partner in ensuring that we still have access to our clients, despite Covid outbreaks,” Sutton said. “The Marin County Jail was an early adopter of providing remote meetings with clients.”
It’s clear that the clients, the people his office represents, remain foremost in Sutton’s mind. After all, they’re the reason he chose to become a public defender.
“I’m a civil servant,” Sutton said. “I serve these individuals and I take that to heart.”