06:27 AM PST on Friday, January 14, 2011

The Press-Enterprise

The theme of the evening was “Access to Justice,” but for young attorneys gathered in the Riverside County district attorney’s office, it was more than the speeches by Public Defender Gary Windom and new District Attorney Paul Zellerbach.

On the 10th floor of the district attorney’s office on Orange Street, some watched the sunset from an outdoor balcony, ate catered burritos, and chatted — deputy public defenders and a handful of prosecutors, the former almost in disbelief.

None could recall an open social gathering inside the district attorney’s office for the past several years. If there was such an event, criminal defense and civil lawyers certainly were not invited, they said.

Zellerbach defeated Rod Pacheco for re-election in June and was sworn in Jan. 3.

“A lot of people felt like they weren’t welcome here, for a lot of reasons,” Zellerbach told the group of about 170 during opening remarks on Wednesday. “This is a public law office…I want to set a different tone for this office; I want to instill a different culture for the legal community and for the community at large.”

The meeting was hosted by the Riverside Barristers, the young attorneys division of the Riverside County Bar Association. It had the feeling of a coming-out party, a social mixer and an agenda-setting business meeting.

Before talks by Windom and Zellerbach in the office’s training room, prosecutors led visitors on tours through the top-floor offices.

The guides pointed out the used furniture brought in to save money in outfitting the building, which opened in late 2009. They showed a training area, and took visitors into Zellerbach’s newly occupied office.

The only request was to keep a no-look distance from the paperwork on his desk.

Guides also pointed out an eastern-facing wall of empty rooms now known as the “dead zone” — offices once occupied by officials of the executive division created by Pacheco, most of whom were dismissed in Zellerbach’s first week in office.

Attorneys from other areas of the building will take their place, they said.

Windom was among the first-time visitors in the building.

The public defender for the county since 1999, Windom said he had met face-to-face in private meetings with Pacheco only twice, and that was before Pacheco was sworn into office in January 2007, he said.

He told the crowd he has already met with Zellerbach three times and the two will begin monthly meetings on items of mutual interest.

Windom had such monthly meetings with Pacheco’s predecessor Grover Trask, but they stopped when Pacheco took office.

There was another reason for the meetings, Windom told the young lawyers.

“If you see Paul and I talking over issues, perhaps you will do the same…Why is it that we can’t talk civilly about what is going on in a case?”

Zellerbach told the group, “I want to encourage this kind of camaraderie. From the standpoint of prosecutors and defense attorneys, we’re going to battle it out in court. You bet.

“At the same time, we don’t need to battle each other on a constant basis outside the court…If we both do our jobs, justice will prevail.”

During their talks, both men addressed access to justice in Riverside County.

Zellerbach repeated that access also was for civil litigants, who from 2006 through mid-2009 could not get their matters to trial because of the number of criminal cases streaming through the system. “That’s not justice,” he said.

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