SAN FRANCISCO — After a day of meetings with legislators and Gov. George Deukmejian's staff, Harvey Zall took himself out of the running Tuesday for the job of state public defender, thus ending a bitter confirmation fight.
Zall, 52, told Michael Frost, the governor's chief of staff, of his decision in a meeting on Tuesday and announced it to the office staff late in the afternoon.
He withdrew in the face of continued attacks from critics who worked with him and charged that he lacked the temperament to head the office where he had been a deputy for 11 years. Deukmejian nominated him to head the office last March and he has been acting public defender since then.
"I truly enjoy my responsibilities as the state public defender and was looking forward to serving in that capacity in the coming years," Zall said in a statement.
"However, after conferring with my family, I concluded it was not in the agency's best interest for me to continue to seek confirmation. I thank Gov. Deukmejian for giving me this opportunity, but it was not to be. I am totally at peace with my decision."
Death Row Defenses
The public defender's office employs about 50 lawyers and is instrumental in the defense of Death Row inmates. Its lawyers also handle the appeals of indigents convicted of the most complex cases, with the longest sentences.
"We certainly accept the decision Harvey has made," said Kevin Brett, the governor's press secretary. "The governor has great respect for Harvey Zall. However, we have to move forward from this point and we have to select a new nominee."
Brett noted that Zall can continue serving as acting state public defender until March 8. He said he was uncertain when a new nominee would be selected for the $85,400-a-year post.
"I think it's the best thing all the way around. It will save a rather ugly fight," said Sen. Nicholas C. Petris (D-Oakland), a member of the Senate Rules Committee, which was set to hold a hearing on Zall's confirmation today.
Petris, who met with Zall on Tuesday morning, said Zall's confirmation "could well have wound up in a rejection, either in the committee or on the floor." A narrow victory for Zall would have further eroded morale in the already troubled office, the senator said.
Only last month, the Rules Committee was poised to confirm Zall. But the committee delayed action after attacks on Zall by a former supervisor in the public defender's office and a representative of California Attorneys for Criminal Justice, an organization of 2,000 defense lawyers.
That gave his opponents time to gather momentum. In the last two weeks, the opposition discovered damaging details about problems in his past jobs and contacted his supporters in a successful effort to weaken his backing.
Zall's announcement was met with relief among many defense attorneys who were concerned that a bitter confirmation would damage the office that has suffered from poor morale.
"This very distasteful period in the history of our office seems to be past us," said Edward H. Schulman, chief of the Los Angeles office of the state public defender. "I can say that we are proceeding with the business of this office, which is to produce top quality work and give the best possible representation to our clients."
In an interview last week, when he was still fighting to win confirmation, Zall said he had filled openings with lawyers who would relieve the backlog of cases and help improve morale. He attributed much of the in-fighting to his effort to increase productivity among deputies.