The First Decade (1972-1981)
It was 1972, and low-quality representation in appointed criminal cases plagued the California appellate system. The state had neither standards for selecting attorneys nor means of training them in the specialized needs of appellate practice. A major step to address this problem was taken in September 1972 when, with the leadership of J. Perry Langford, the sponsorship of the San Diego County Bar Association, and federal grant funding, Appellate Defenders, Inc., was born. Its mission was to handle all appointed appeals in San Diego using a small core of experienced staff attorneys to represent clients and supervise a panel of private counsel.
Appellate Defenders began as a small operation in the University of San Diego cellar but grew rapidly. On October 5, 1972, J. Perry Langford reported the organization had filed its first brief; he ventured, “It would appear that we will be filing a great many more.”
In 1976 Appellate Defenders’ funding was assumed by a contract with the newly created State Public Defender, a statewide appellate defense agency. By the end of the 1970’s Appellate Defenders had roughly doubled in size and moved to a downtown high-rise. J. Perry Langford had been named to the superior court, and Elaine Alexander had succeeded him as executive director. Paul Bell became the first assistant director.
In 1980 Appellate Defenders’ employees were hired by the State Public Defender, and Appellate Defenders no longer operated as a active law firm. But the corporate shell was kept in place “just in case” – a move that proved prophetic.
The Second Decade (1982-1992)
In 1983, Governor Deukmejian vetoed 50% of the budget of the State Public Defender, forcing the closing of the San Diego office and the layoff of its employees. Chief Justice Rose Elizabeth Bird and Fourth Appellate District Presiding Justice Gerald Brown approved Appellate Defenders’ proposal to expand its system to the whole district, which included courts in San Bernardino and Santa Ana, as well as San Diego.
Appellate Defenders applied to the Bar Association for a $30,000 start-up loan; the bar board, on motion made by Richard Huffman, then Chief Deputy District Attorney and later a justice of the Court of Appeal, approved the loan application.
Elaine Alexander reported to the Board of Directors with great pride that Appellate Defenders, Inc., had resumed operations on November 15, 1983, ending an inactive period of three years. Most of the employees of the State Public Defender office in San Diego, including many who had worked for Appellate Defenders three years earlier, were joined by an additional attorney and two newly hired secretaries to form the staff of the revived program. Appellate Defenders, for the second time in 11 years, was a pilot project.
Under the system Appellate Defenders used a staff of highly regarded appellate attorneys (ranging in number from about one to two dozen, depending on caseload and programmatic factors) to manage a panel of several hundred private attorneys – assessing and ranking their qualifications, matching them with cases suited to their capabilities, assisting them with issue identification and briefing, evaluating their work, and recommending their compensation. In addition, the office provided training and resource materials to the panel and broader legal community, information and services to the Court of Appeal and Judicial Council, and help to unrepresented defendants. Its staff attorneys also directly represented a number of clients. The office took on juvenile dependency, as well as criminal, cases, and its caseload grew from about 200 annually to over 2000.
Following Appellate Defenders’ great success in its new role, similar projects were created in every other appellate district, soon to be considered a critical part of California’s appointed counsel system. For the first time in its history, Appellate Defenders was no longer a pilot project, but rather a keystone of an innovative system of appellate defense that brought a level of high quality, consistency, and efficiency unparalleled in any other time or jurisdiction.
The Third Decade (1992-2002)
1997 marked the celebration of Appellate Defender’s 25th anniversary. At the anniversary party, the office paid special tribute to Paul Bell, who had passed away in July 1997, after a valiant fight with cancer. He had been with the office since 1974 and had served as its assistant director since 1979. The board of directors established a fellowship in his name. It also created the Paul Bell Award, for outstanding service in indigent appellate work. The first winner was Lynda Romero, a distinguished panel attorney and former staff attorney and a dear friend of Paul’s.
In the spring of 2000, Appellate Defenders worked with the other projects and the Judicial Council to sponsor an innovative appellate practice college for twelve promising members of the panels around the state.
When the third decade drew to a close, Appellate Defenders had approximately 18 staff attorneys and 15 other staff members and administered a panel of over 350 private attorneys. Over 2500 appointments were made each year.
The 21st Century (2002-present)
The new century saw the launching of ADI’s Appellate Practice Manual, the first treatise of its kind, which is widely used by panel attorneys around the state to navigate the appointed counsel program and appellate procedure in California. The Appellate Practice Manual is updated periodically and is available free on the ADI website.
Long-time legal administrator Ernie Palacio received the 2007 Distinguished Citizen Award from the San Diego County Bar Association for his outstanding contributions to ADI and to the entire legal community. Ernie had been a linchpin of its architecture from nearly the first day of ADI’s “rise from the ashes” in 1983. Sadly, he passed away at the age of 45.
In March of 2020, California courts shutdown due to the COVID-19 pandemic. ADI offices closed, and staff began working remotely. ADI took measures to assist the panel in getting through both the increased workload in the dependency field and the decreased criminal appeals volume during the pandemic.
In January of 2022, Executive Director Elaine Alexander retired. The Board selected Lynelle Hee, longtime staff attorney at ADI, as Executive Director. The ADI offices re-opened with a majority of staff working remotely at least part of the time. ADI has a robust conferencing system to permit hybrid meetings, and MCLE presentations have moved to that platform. The website was completely re-designed in 2023 to suit the evolving needs of the panel and clients.
Tribute to Elaine Alexander
Elaine Alexander was the Executive Director of ADI from 1979 to 2022. Her career with ADI began in 1973 when she was hired as the fourth staff attorney. After 49 years of service, Elaine retired as the longest serving executive director of any project.
After graduating the top of her class in political science at Washington University in St. Louis, Elaine received her juris doctorate from Yale Law School, also earning Order of the Coif membership. While at Yale she served as Co-Director of the Yale Legal Services Organization.
When she joined ADI, it was a small non-profit pilot project funded to improve the quality of appointed counsel representation in criminal adult and juvenile cases in the Fourth Appellate District, Division One. She led ADI through several transformations, including a three-year period when the employees were hired by the State Public Defender. A severe budget cut caused the closure of the San Diego office and layoff of its employees. Elaine navigated her way through the judiciary and Legislature, ultimately revived ADI’s non-profit status, and received funding and approval to expand the system to the entire Fourth Appellate District. Under her leadership, ADI became the model project for the Court-Appointed Counsel Program and similar appellate projects formed throughout the state. The project system she pioneered grew and now additionally serves indigent clients in juvenile dependency, LPS conservatorships, and other proceedings. Through her work at ADI, she has been a champion of the poor by improving the quality of indigent appellate representation throughout the state.
Among her many contributions to the legal community, she has served on several statewide committees dealing with such matters as jury instructions, appellate rules, death penalty representation, and juvenile justice. She co-authored two law review articles, taught law school courses, wrote numerous legal analyses for appellate attorneys, authored the Compensation Claims Manual, and co-authored and edited the California Appellate Practice Manual.
Her passion for indigent defense work is matched only by her love of her family. She’s married to Larry Alexander, the Warren Distinguished Professor of Law at the University of San Diego School of Law. They have three children — Jennifer Shah, an attorney in Buffalo, New York; David Alexander, a physician in Sammamish, Washington; and Jonathan Alexander, a neuroscientist in Boston, Massachusetts. And they have four grandchildren — Simran and Sejal Shah, and Kai and Luka Alexander — and one deceased grandchild, Tej Shah.
Elaine’s life and career are an inspiration; she will always be part of ADI’s mission, culture, and family.