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Ex-Delco defender: Fired over lack of plea deals

A former Delaware County public defender contends that he was fired for bringing too many cases to trial rather than accepting plea deals for clients.

A former Delaware County public defender contends that he was fired for bringing too many cases to trial rather than accepting plea deals for clients.

Joseph De Ritis of Broomall says in a lawsuit that his reluctance to accept plea deals led to his June 2012 demotion from a trial team in the county defender's office to Juvenile Court. He is seeking $2 million in damages and reinstatement to his old job.

In his complaint, filed in federal court in Philadelphia in October, De Ritis says the demotion came after he had worked for more than six years as an attorney in the defender office, which represents criminal defendants who cannot afford lawyers.

At the time, Judge Chad Kenney had recently become president judge of County Court. De Ritis alleges that he heard from his colleagues that Kenney wanted cases moved more quickly through the court, and that he named De Ritis as someone not moving cases quickly enough.

Such treatment infringed on "his right to engage in zealous advocacy on behalf of criminal defendants," he contends, arguing that pressure to avoid bringing cases to trial violates constitutional protections for defendants.

Mark Raith, an attorney representing Douglas Roger, the defender office's executive director and one of the defendants in the lawsuit, said he plans to file a motion to dismiss the case next week, arguing that it's flawed.

"This is not sufficient to state a constitutional claim," Raith said.

In its most recent report on felony cases in large urban counties, the Bureau of Justice Statistics reported that about 94 percent of criminal defendants accept plea bargains.

Other studies have demonstrated that those represented by public defenders are more likely to accept plea deals than those who hire private attorneys.

After his initial move to the juvenile team, De Ritis was further demoted at his own request, his lawsuit says, because he did not get along with an official in Juvenile Court.

He expected to be promoted again, on the basis of seniority, when the next spot on a trial team opened. When he was not promoted, he met with the county solicitor, Michael Maddren, and the chairman of the County Council, Thomas McGarrigle, to ask for help.

Instead, De Ritis claims, Roger, who was his boss, scolded him for complaining to Maddren and dismissed him from the office without a warning or a hearing.

De Ritis is suing Roger, Kenney, Maddren, McGarrigle, the four additional members of the County Council, and the county itself. Roger, Kenney, Maddren, and McGarrigle declined to comment, as did attorneys for Kenney, Maddren, and the County Council.

De Ritis, who is representing himself in the lawsuit, said he did not want to discuss the case "on advice of counsel."

He now works as an attorney in Media and Philadelphia.

The defendants have not yet filed a response.