HOLLIDAYSBURG - Blair County will have a new public defender on Monday morning, but the transition from James R. DiFrancesco, a former judge, to Russell Montgomery, a former assistant district attorney, is expected to be fairly smooth.
Montgomery has expressed great respect for the job "Jimmy D." did.
DiFrancesco left his Blair County position a week ago after spending more than seven years as chief public defender.
He leaves behind an experienced staff that has been in place for a long time. That's unusual because the public defender's office generally is considered the "poor stepchild" of the court system, not just in Blair County but throughout the state, Montgomery said.
The office receives no state funds - something many on the defense side would like to see changed - which usually means lower wages and a great deal of turnover.
But DiFrancesco was able to cobble together a staff of part-timers with years of experience, such as attorneys Theodore Krol, John Siford, David Beyer and Michael Emerick, who handles the juvenile court defense duties.
The full-time employees also are experienced. They include Ed Ferguson with more than 20 years' experience, Jason Imler, who spent several years in private practice, and Julia Burke, who practiced in New York before coming here.
Imler and Burke, both among the young lawyers group in Blair County, praised DiFrancesco as a mentor, who offered much experience and advice.
Montgomery said he has no intent of meddling with a public defender's office that is running smoothly. He said he wants to observe at first and meet with each attorney and support person to see what they think.
"I have big shoes to fill," Montgomery said.
DiFrancesco, a native of Johnstown, practiced law for 53 years. He is the son of a former Cambria district attorney and was a former Cambria County public defender and common pleas court judge. As an attorney, he handled many death penalty cases.
Montgomery, 55, a Pittsburgh native, a graduate of North Allegheny High School, Washington and Jefferson University and the University of Houston Law School, is in his 25th year of practice.
He landed in Blair County to campaign for his brother-in-law, now Senior Judge Hiram A. Carpenter, during Carpenter's run for judge.
He was offered a job with the Gieg and Gieg law firm, where he worked for 14 years, becoming a partner and acquiring experience in municipal, real estate, personal injury and criminal law.
He then served in the public defender's office before becoming assistant district attorney under Richard A. Consiglio.
Montgomery said of Consiglio, "I think he's tough but reasonable."
Asked if he will argue with Consiglio now that he will be on the other side of the courtroom, Montgomery replied, "Oh sure," adding emphasis.
Montgomery is a big supporter of Blair County's specialty courts, such as the drug courts for juveniles, adults and families, and the new veterans court.
He also favors the establishment of a mental health court, pointing out "so many repeat offenders have mental health problems."
Montgomery said he likes the specialty courts because they represent an attempt to prevent recidivism by providing alternatives to jail.
"Incarceration is not always the answer," he said.
As for Jimmy D., as DiFrancesco was known in the Blair County Courthouse, he won't soon be forgotten.
"I'm glad I had a chance to work with him. A lot of it was how passionate he was," Burke said. "He'd go to war for us even if we were wrong. ... He was so enthusiastic and passionate, you absorbed it."
"You can't replace Mr. D. He was so respectful of everybody who worked for him," she said.
Krol said, "I have the utmost respect for Jimmy D. ... He was excellent to work for. He was a good mentor to young attorneys. He was very supportive of the attorneys in the public defender's office."
He said he is "very comfortable" with Montgomery, whom he has known for 20 years.
Imler said DiFrancesco was a "strong leader" who made the attorneys in his office believe they had an impact on people's lives, that their work was important.
Montgomery intends to stay awhile in his new post, noting he wants to retire as Blair County's public defender.