After 28 years as the 15th Circuit Public Defender, Orrie West will turn over her duties Aug. 3 to longtime public defender Ronald Hazzard.
Hazzard was selected for the job recently by a five-person committee of area attorneys headed by Conway attorney Scott Bellamy. The job brings with it a $191,954 annual salary and a heavy responsibility.
The chief public defender oversees the Conway and Georgetown offices, plus a staff of 11 attorneys and 12 supporting employees. The job also includes supervision of four contract attorneys who handle issues that are transferred from the circuit court back to magistrate’s courts for adjudication, according to Hazzard.
The public defender’s team had 5,382 open files from June of 2019 to June of 2020. That’s up about 240 cases from the year before, which amounts to about 360 cases for each attorney, the soon-to-be top public defender said.
“We have a large caseload,” Hazzard said. “One of the things that I want to do is tear that down a little bit if at all possible, but it is what it is. We have a very dedicated staff that I’m proud to have worked with…These folks take on the challenge every day,” he said.
Still, he said, no matter how many cases an attorney has, he or she can handle only one at a time.
“We give every case our best effort, and then move on to the next case,” he said.
Clients of the public defender’s office must show financial need.
Hazzard, who is 57 years old, was born in Columbia. He earned a degree in political science in 1984 from the University of South Carolina before heading on to the university’s law school where he earned a juris doctorate.
Upon his law school graduation, Hazzard headed to the school’s placement office where they gave him three choices of where he’d like to work. Of course, he gave Columbia as his first choice because it was where he had always lived. Charleston was his second choice and Myrtle Beach was his third choice because, like so many families, his family had vacationed there when he was a child, and they always loved the area.
“Thirty-two years later, I still love the area very much,” he said.
West thinks Hazzard was an excellent choice to follow her.
“He’s done an excellent job in Georgetown and he is one of the finest attorneys I know,” she said.
She also thinks it’s a plus that he was an excellent administrator in Georgetown and that everybody in both offices already knows him.
Bellamy also describes Hazzard as an excellent lawyer and says he was the right choice for the job, although he adds that they had some very good local candidates apply for the job.
“He is currently there, so he understands how it works now and what their roles are,” Bellamy said. “We’ve got a good office now, but we think he could make it even better for the coming years.”
He points out that Hazzard has also been in private practice, he works well with people and he knows the strengths and weaknesses of the current staff and attorneys.
“We’ve got a very good system and it works, and we look forward to it continuing to work, especially now with the virus and the difficulties that it brings in trying to pull together court,” he said
Hazzard began working for the Public Defender’s Office as an assistant public defender in December of 2008. He was promoted to senior trial attorney April 13, 2012, when he moved from the Conway office to the Georgetown office, and then was promoted to chief public defender for Georgetown County.
With his new position, he’ll work in Conway and Georgetown, although he expects to be in Conway more simply because it is the busier of the two offices.
He chose to become a public defender rather than a private attorney or solicitor because, “I like helping people, and I like helping people that don’t think that they have anyone to stand up for them.”
West will leave the office Aug. 1. She must retire because she has reached the age of 70, which is the Office of Indigent Defense’s required retirement age.
Hazzard says he’s glad for the years that he worked with Ms. West, adding one thing he’s learned from watching her is that there will always something coming at him. He called it a “curve ball.”
“It’s just how you deal with it,” he said.
He says Ms. West has done an incredible job during her 28 years as the circuit’s public defender and he has learned much by working with her.
He hopes to continue to make this office one of the best in the state, adding that visiting judges often make it a point to say how well prepared the office is, how passionately the attorneys represent their clients and how knowledgeable the attorneys are in the positions they take.
He points out that the Public Defender’s office works with solicitors from the 15th Circuit, administrative judges, court employees and members of the Horry County and Georgetown County Sheriff’s Offices.
“They’re wonderful, wonderful folks, and they do everything possible to make it where the system works, so we don’t work in a vacuum,” he said.
What they all want is for the system to work as best it possibly can, he said.
He says S.C. Chief Justice Donald W. Beatty has told the state’s court workers that, despite the difficulties caused by the current pandemic, they are all still trying to do what they can to make sure people get their day in court because what everyone wants is for the court system to work the best that’s humanly possible.