Heather Rogers sees natural fit as county’s first public defender: ‘I was immediately drawn to this work’
Heather Rogers, a Santa Cruz native who’s worked in public defense for over 17 years, has been selected as the county’s first official public defender. She comes from Biggam, Christensen & Minsloff, the law firm to which the county has outsourced its public defense work since 1975 and whose contract ends in June 2022.
After a four-year process, Santa Cruz County has chosen its first official public defender: Heather Rogers.
She formally takes over Oct. 1, though the office will continue to work with her former employer, Biggam, Christensen & Minsloff — which has handled indigent defense matters for the county since 1975 — through June 2022.
Rogers is no stranger to the Santa Cruz County area: She’s a Santa Cruz native who began her career at the firm in her final semester at Stanford Law School. She has worked for BCM since 2012, representing hundreds of defendants, both as a felony trial attorney and a supervising attorney.
“I was immediately drawn to this work — I loved the team, our clients, and the social justice aspects of the work,” she said. “I really saw that this could be a niche that I could find my career in.”
Background in state and federal defense
After graduation, Rogers worked as a law clerk on the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals with Judge M. Margaret McKeown, before joining Federal Defenders of San Diego, a renowned federal defense law organization. In this position for about three years, Rogers built up her expertise in trying cases under a leadership team that “really saw my passion for the work and that I wanted to spend my career doing indigent defense.”
“I was really learning how to do the trial work, the appellate work, and most importantly, how to represent clients in a really client-centered way,” she said. “Every human being who finds themself in this system comes here with unique goals for themselves and for what they want to achieve.”
In November 2007, Rogers opened her own law firm, focusing on indigent defense with a team of other female defense attorneys. The group — each of whom had their own practitioner law firms — shared a space with an on-site nursery and nanny (Rogers’s two children are now 13 and 6).
“It was a way for us to continue to do the work, but also be young parents, and find a balance between having children and a practice that can be pretty fast-paced and intensive,” she said.
From there, she worked at the Monterey County Office of the Public Defender and then the Office of the Federal Public Defender for the Northern District of California. Soon after, she got a call from defense attorney and firm partner Larry Biggam.
“They were looking for a lateral to take over a caseload here that would include juvenile delinquency and several serious felonies, and they wondered if I wanted to come home,” she said. “And I did.”
After joining the office in April 2012, Rogers built up her portfolio as a defender for numerous high-profile cases, but said that every single case she’s worked on over her time with BCM has been important.
“Those are the cases people have heard of and seen because they were in the news, but I’ve represented hundreds of people in this county,” she said. “Every case is important to the people involved in it, from the families to the witnesses to the community ... every time you pick up a file and meet another person, it’s really important to get everything needed to give that person an exceptional and compassionate defense.”
Biggam, her boss of the past nine years, is adamant Rogers will bring a healthy balance of her responsibilities to her new position, and be able to bring forth fairness for just and reliable outcomes.
“Heather is intelligent, incredibly hard-working, experienced and caring. She understands the job,” he said. “I am confident that she will continue our mission of vigorous client-centered advocacy.”
National search and listening sessions
Prior to 1975, Santa Cruz County mainly outsourced public defense services through hourly contracts before signing with BCM, Assistant County Administrative Officer Nicole Coburn explained. But four years ago, Coburn and the county began to evaluate the idea of having a formal public defender’s office.
“At the time, we’d been contracting for many years, and knew that [BCM] probably wouldn’t want to do this forever,” she said. “Larry Biggam provides great services, but has done this for a very long time, so we were worried about succession planning.”
The county board of supervisors approved the contract extensions to end on June 30, 2022, and OK’d the transition plan last April. Coburn said as part of the national search for the position, the county held listening sessions with local stakeholders, including officials from the Pajaro Valley Unified School District, community partners, and criminal justice partners.
From there, the county was able to create an outline for what was most needed in the job, a vision that matched Rogers’.
“She really laid out her vision for the office of what she wanted to see and how she would work with partners,” Coburn said. “It was very clear that she would bring something very special to the office.”
For her part, Rogers said she wants to work with other county agencies to provide more robust and holistic services, and to strengthen the relationships among all county and community partners involved in the criminal justice system.
“We have a tremendous community problem with substance abuse, mental illness, poverty, homelessness, and hopelessness,” she said. “My hope is that now that we’re in the county fold, we can really work together more effectively to address those root causes.”
Keeping the lessons learned
Rogers said she won’t stray far from the lessons and insights she gained with the team at BCM.
“This firm has always had a core team of fantastic and committed defense attorneys, who go into the work for all the right reasons,” Rogers said. “They really care about the equity issues and social justice issues that drive indigent defense, and mostly they’re just compassionate people who want to work with clients who are often very vulnerable.”
Her new Santa Cruz County office will have a budget of approximately $13 million — similar to the budget the county had for contracted services. The recruitment brochure the county used during its search estimated 45 staff members, with 23 to 26 attorneys, eight to 10 investigators, and six to nine administrative support roles. The office will also have 37 full-time equivalent funded and unfunded positions as part of the supplemental budget.
The BCM partners will likely retire in the fall of 2022, Biggam said, with the majority of the staff likely transitioning to the county office under Rogers’ tutelage.
Rogers said she is grateful for the chance to continue to work in her hometown, and specifically with other defense attorneys who have made the commitment to serve Santa Cruz County as a whole.
“Everybody is here because they’re dedicated to Santa Cruz County, and this is where we want to be,” she said. “That creates a special culture that I’m happy to be a part of. ... I’m so honored to be a part of what’s next.”