Gratton takes helm as county defender

MIDDLEBURY — There’s a lot of work and a sense of mystery associated with being Addison County’s public defender, and James Gratton embraces both facets of the job.
“I like the challenge of working with people,” Gratton said. “I like the fact that I never know when I come in in the morning what’s going to happen. I might be doing a motion that I wasn’t expecting, I might be getting through the paperwork that’s on my desk, for once.
“It’s always interesting, dynamic and challenging. It’s never dull.”
It was this past January that Gratton succeeded Jerry Schwarz as the county’s public defender. He had joined the office in July of 2013. Gratton right now is the only lawyer staffing the county’s office, and he doesn’t expect reinforcements any time soon due to the state’s fiscal woes. In the meantime, the office has a contract with a private attorney, John St. Francis, to pick up some of the overflow cases that Gratton is unable to take on.
Gratton said his office routinely juggles 100 cases at any given time. Gratton himself is currently involved in around 60 open cases.
“We really are more than one position’s work here in Addison County,” Gratton said. “For the time being, it’s just me here. The intention is for there to be two of us again at some point. I don’t expect another person this year, at this point. Everybody’s budget for the 2015-16 year is a mess right now.”
Gratton graduated from Vermont Law School in 1990, whereupon he moved to Pennsylvania to look for work.
“Those were really lean years here (in Vermont),” Gratton explained. “There wasn’t a lot (of work) to find.”
Accompanying him in his job search was his wife, Janet Arnold, who is also a lawyer.
His résumé includes a five-year stint as a public defender and then district attorney in Berks County, Pa. Then he spent 16 years with the Lancaster, Pa., public defender’s office. He was one of 21 attorneys in that Lancaster office, and one of six who worked death penalty cases.
“It was not unusual to lose five or 10 pounds during a death penalty trial,” Gratton said. “The stress of a penalty that calls for death is really hard on everybody — the prosecutors, the defenders and the juries. It’s hard to watch a jury come back with a penalty and cry. I’ve seen that. I don’t miss that aspect of it a bit.”
Gratton and his family, which now includes a daughter, decided to return to Vermont a few years ago in part to be closer to Gratton’s parents in the Clarendon area. There was an opening in the Addison County Public Defender’s Office, and Gratton got the job.
Needless to say, Gratton puts in some long days. He commutes 52 minutes (each way) to work and takes on any case that walks through the door. The public defender’s office provides legal assistance to defendants who would otherwise be unable to afford a lawyer. Clients are expected to pay a portion of their legal expenses, depending on income. Gratton said his clientele includes a lot of working folks and people who are under-employed.
Family fights and driving offenses are typically the two crime categories in which the vast majority of Gratton’s clients find themselves facing charges. And drugs and alcohol are often a contributor in the commission of these crimes, according to Gratton.
“A lot of our cases are coming out of drug addiction,” Gratton said. “There are also sometimes mental health issues.”
The public defender’s office also occasionally represents defendants in high-profile cases. For example, Gratton is representing 27-year-old Nate Dearing, who faces charges including a felony count of driving under the influence with death resulting in connection with the April 14 death of Kelly Boe, who was struck by Dearing’s car while cycling in Weybridge.
Gratton guides his clients through the legal process and works to get the best outcome for them.
“A lot of what we do is negotiating,” Gratton said, alluding to the plea bargaining process that often occurs with the Addison County State’s Attorney’s Office. In these cases, the defender and prosecutors attempt to come to agreement on the punishment for defendants based on the circumstances of the alleged crime(s).
“The vast majority of cases resolve,” said Gratton. He estimated he has represented clients in around a half-dozen criminal cases that have gone to trial.
“I love the work,” Gratton said. “The people element is really the fun factor, in that you never know what is going to come down the pike, or how things are going to go. It really is a service industry; we do a lot of stuff to help people as best we can.”
He explained there is a “significant social work element” to the job of a public defender in Vermont that is not present in many other states, including Pennsylvania.
“In Pennsylvania, it was much more about volume; here, we’re much more hands-on with clients,” Gratton said. As an example, he cited the recent case of a female defendant whose sentence included completion of a substance treatment program. That resolution, Gratton said, involved players in three different counties, along with substance abuse counselors and the Vermont Department of Corrections.
Much to Gratton’s relief, the crime scene in Addison County, Vermont, is much less remarkable than in urban areas of Pennsylvania.
“I’d like to think of myself as a saddle-maker in a one-horse town,” Gratton said. “And that’s all right. We do some good work for people.”
He enjoys his work in Addison County and plans on sticking around for a while. And while compensation might be better in private practice, money isn’t everything.
“I always tell people, ‘I’m a public defender: I swore a vow of poverty,’” Gratton joked. “There are aspects of the private practice I wouldn’t enjoy. I get to work directly with the clients without concern for fiscal issues. It’s really the pure practice of criminal law.”
Reporter John Flowers is at [email protected].

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