Heather Rogers is set to begin her duties as Santa Cruz County's public defender on July 1.
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)
Civic Life

Q&A: Heather Rogers, the first public defender in Santa Cruz County history, doesn’t see cases, only people

“You know how when you find something that you love, it just feels like you don’t want to stop? That was how public defense was for me from the very beginning,” says Heather Rogers, a Santa Cruz native who steps into the role as public defender July 1.

Heather Rogers didn’t always think she’d be a public defender. It was her internship at Santa Cruz law firm Biggam, Christensen & Minsloff (BCM) that set her on that path — and she knew right away she had found the right line of work.

Heather Rogers, Santa Cruz County Public Defender

She was instantly struck by the complexity of each client, and just like that, her eyes were opened to just how much more there is to each case than meets the eye, she says.

“Every single one of my clients is a complicated human being who carries their own life story,” she said. “It seems to me that it’s only fair to try to understand that bigger context.”

Rogers, 47, was born in Santa Cruz and moved around quite a bit when she was young. While in their 20s, she and her husband moved to Aptos, where they still reside. Her parents now live just down the road.

Now, she serves as the first Santa Cruz County public defender, having been chosen for the position in September. A graduate of Stanford Law School, she moved into the new job after working for BCM for a decade, the firm that had long handled the county’s public defender needs on a contract basis.

Rogers’ nearly 20-year career has primed her well for her new role. Being a Santa Cruz County native has also well acquainted her with the county’s judicial landscape and political issues. She says she is committed to forming a well-rounded, client-centric office with both ample supervisors and, most notably, a social support team to help clients navigate the often harsh justice system. 23 attorneys and seven investigators will be joining her.

Her range of experience in public defense is vast. She has represented hundreds of clients facing charges that range from misdemeanors to homicide and sex crimes.

She met with Lookout to discuss how she found herself here, her vision for the new office, and the challenges of being a first in history.

This interview has been edited for clarity.

Lookout: Being a first in history for anything is exciting. What’s the transition like? How does a county office operate differently from a private firm?

Heather Rogers: At the end of the day, our duties to our clients are the same. Duty is of absolute loyalty, absolute confidentiality, and every decision we make has to be client-focused as a public defender whether you’re in a private firm or whether you work for the county. My hope is that we can bring a more supportive public defender’s office to the county structure.

Now, for the first time ever, really, the public defender has a seat at the table with our health services agency, and in a county level way with probation, the district attorney’s office, and with the sheriff. We can contribute to and shape the conversations that are shaping our clients lives in ways that may have been less organic before.

While the firm [BCM] had a contract with the county to provide public defense, at the end of the day it was a for-profit law firm. The conversations that you have from that vantage point are very different than when you’re coming at it from the perspective of a public agency that’s funded in a very transparent way with taxpayer money through the general fund.

We’ll really be able to sit at the policy table to make decisions about how our county is going to approach problems in a holistic, comprehensive way. It’s exciting to be asked my opinion about things like homelessness, like the fentanyl crisis, and to be able to speak with folks who are looking at problems from a lot of different perspectives and talk about how the public defender can contribute to the bigger solutions is really great.

The work in the courtroom will change in certain ways, but not necessarily because I have a certain vision for the office. I really believe that we need to embrace holistic defense and we need to look at the whole client and not just the case. We have to be mindful of the reality that when a human being ends up in the system, it’s often because of a failed social safety net that led to this path. Too often we end up in the “us versus them” dialogue, and I want to shift the conversation and really break down the root cause of system involvement, and push to work together for solutions.

Incoming Santa Cruz County public defender Heather Rogers
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)

Lookout: That brings up an important question: What do you say to those who raise the “how do you defend those people?” question?

Rogers: My personal answer is that these people are our people. They are our sisters and brothers, nieces and nephews, sons and daughters, and neighbors. There is no “those people.” If you really look at the system-involved population, there is such a variety of circumstances that drive people into the system, and for me, it’s always been a “there but for the grace of God go I” kind of feeling about it. I think that a lack of opportunity, resources and equity often leads people into these courtrooms, and until we realize that there are no “those people,” we’re not going to be able to really understand the solutions to the problems.

The law school answer is that the Sixth Amendment enshrines a personal right to everyone, and that is the right to an attorney and fair trial. The state is so powerful that we have to safeguard the individual person’s liberty and rights for the protection of all of us, the protection of a constitutional system, and our democracy.

All in all, it’s never a simple equation of right versus wrong or us versus them. It’s always a complicated human story, and that’s because every single one of my clients is a complicated human being who carries their own life story. It seems to me that it’s only fair to try to understand that bigger context.

In that same vein, how did you feel about Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson’s confirmation hearing and the grilling before the Senate Judiciary Committee about the Supreme Court nominee’s work as a public defender?

It’s disappointing, misleading, and entrenches commonly held misconceptions about public defense and public defenders. Public defense is a constitutionally mandated service to our community, state, and nation.

Public defenders breathe life into the Sixth Amendment of the Constitution, ensuring that each person’s individual rights to liberty, due process,and justice are safeguarded. In a system where a powerful and well-funded government can bring the resources of the state of prosecute a person whose voice has been muted by poverty and disregard, public defenders are patriots, upholding the constitutional rights of “We the People” against indifference, erosion and attack.

Lookout: Criminal defense counsel is a hard job. Is there a moment in your life or a case that you tried that you can pick out as a defining moment that got you to continue on this path? Is this something that you’ve always planned to do?

Rogers: Not at all. I went to law school to do clean water law. Pre-law school, I was a writer, and I wrote for a local scuba diving travel magazine. I became really impassioned about the state of the ocean and our reefs, so when I went to law school I was thinking that I would be an environmental law attorney.

In my final semester of law school, I was commuting from Aptos to Stanford. Because I was an older student, I had a home here with my husband. I saw a job announcement on the job board at Stanford that said that the Santa Cruz public defender’s office is looking for interns. It was a much shorter commute, and I could work three days a week. I thought it sounded really interesting.

From the very first case I was given, it was my “aha” moment. I knew that this was my calling. I was so immediately drawn into the human story behind every client. Just so intrigued, curious, and impassioned. You know how when you find something that you love, it just feels like you don’t want to stop? That was how public defense was for me from the very beginning. So my internship at Larry [Biggam’s] shop completely changed my life.

Lookout: Speaking of your old firm, will there be any interruptions in cases that you’re currently working on?

Rogers: The logistics are complicated. Larry’s contract is over on June 30, and then on July 1, all of those cases will come to the office of the public defender, and most of Larry’s staff [23 attorneys, seven investigators] will come, too. Our goal is that, for the client, it will look like nothing happened, except maybe they get some more support. We want them to have the same attorney, and we want it to be a seamless transition for the clients. They shouldn’t bear the burden of the transition.

Currently, I have co-counsel on two homicides, and I’ll continue to work on those cases. Really, I’m already bound by all of the same duties to those clients as I will be as the public defender. As of July 1, of course, we’ll start getting all the appointments that would have gone to Larry, and that’s when my new ideas about the structure of the office will start to affect the day-to-day.

What are some of those specific ideas you’re looking to implement?

Rogers: We put together a team of defenders from BCM, and we worked in a committee for several weeks over at May Avenue [the location of the new office, off of Water Street by the courthouse]. We just talked about what it means to be a public defender and what our clients need. From there, we put together a mission vision and values that encapsulates everything we strive to do.

In every courtroom, we’re going to have a defense team that consists of attorneys, supervisors, an investigator and a social service caseworker, and those teams will work together to represent all of the clients who are assigned to that department. This way, our clients will see the same people every time they go to court. They’ll learn people’s names, understand how the people fit together, and how they work together to support them. My hope is that clients feel like they’re being represented by a boutique law firm where people know their life history, their supporters in the audience, their needs and goals, so that we can really start to do true holistic defense, which requires a knowledge of the whole person, not just the case.

We’re also going to have a social support unit with social workers who can actually address some of the root causes of system involvement in a concrete and professional way. I haven’t been trained in social work and yet, for almost 20 years, I’ve been doing it every day. I’m not as good at it as someone who was trained to do that, so I feel like it’s just going to result in better service for our clients. If we recognize our own limitations, we should say that we need a social service client advocate the same way that we wouldn’t pretend that we could conduct an investigation. We need to be real about the fact that a large component of public defense is social service support.