TRENTON - New Jersey's top public defender says Gov. Christie is autocratically and illegally trying to push her out of her position while blocking key appointments in her office.
"I am a public defender," said Yvonne Smith Segars, who at one point thought she would be physically removed from her office. "This is not a job. This is what I do."
Christie recently appointed a deputy in Segars' office, Joseph E. Krakora, to take over the position Segars has held since 2002. The Senate has yet to move on that appointment, so Segars still has her job because, she said, Christie cannot legally force her to resign.
But Christie has not acted as if Segars was still running an office of 1,300 employees, she said.
According to Segars, her attorney, and a harshly worded letter Segars sent to Christie this week, Christie has illegally blocked three promotions in her office, even though they were approved by the Civil Service Commission; repeatedly tried to force her to resign, with "veiled threats" and "bullying tactics"; and initially threatened to forbid her to return to the Public Defender's Office as a lawyer, which is beyond his control.
Christie's spokesman Michael Drewniak denied the accusations in a statement, saying they "are not based in reality and exaggerate even the most routine interactions between her and staff in the Governor's Office."
"The fact of the matter is that hers is a gubernatorial appointment, and she has been in a holdover position for an unusually long time."
Drewniak added: "We thank Ms. Segars for her service, but new leadership and new ideas are beneficial and necessary for any institution, including the Public Defenders Office."
Beyond the power to appoint the top public defender, the governor cannot otherwise influence the office, because the U.S. Supreme Court has protected public defenders from political interference, according to Segars' attorney, Nancy Erika Smith. The reason? Public defenders go head-to-head, every day, with prosecutors who represent the state. It's a naturally adversarial relationship.
Segars was called into the Governor's Office a few weeks ago, Smith said, and essentially told by a staffer: "It's time for you to leave."
Segars wrote in her letter to Christie: "You are treating my career as expendable, and state government as if you are a unitary executive with unbridled power. . . . You have no right to treat me like a pawn on a chess board."
This is not the first time the governor has faced criticism for his approach to appointments. Last year, for example, Christie bucked tradition and refrained from reappointing a justice, John Wallace, to the state Supreme Court.
Public defenders represent most of the defendants in criminal cases, children who have been abused, and parents at risk of losing their parental rights.
Appointed to her position in 2002, Segars earns $136,755, according to state records.
"I'm absolutely proud of the work I've done," she said.