Nevada City defense attorney named director of state association
Criminal defense attorney Stephen Munkelt is slowly wrapping up his private practice after representing defendants in Nevada County for more than 30 years. But that doesn’t mean he plans to enjoy some well-deserved leisure time.
Instead, Munkelt is already six months into a new position as executive director of California Attorneys for Criminal Justice, a statewide association of more than 2,000 criminal defense lawyers.
The association, Munkelt said, was formed in 1973 by a group of prominent defense attorneys in a post-Watergate climate of a criminal justice system becoming more punitive and less observant of defendants’ rights.
“They wanted to create an institutional voice for criminal defense and for the accused,” he said.
Munkelt — who passed the bar in 1978 and who then subsequently joined Defenders Inc. in San Diego — first learned of the organization while attending its annual seminar in San Francisco. He heard legendary defense attorneys Gerry Spence (who represented Karen Sllkwood’s family and defended Randy Weaver, among other high-profile cases) and Tony Serra (Huey Newton and, more recently, Derick Almena in the Ghost Ship fire case) speak on jury selection and the structure of the law.
“I do not think I have missed more than two of these seminars since then,” Munkelt said.
Going to the seminars hosted by the organization helped Munkelt feel less isolated after he moved to tiny rural Nevada County in 1987.
“It was often a lonely pursuit up here,” he said of the small number of criminal defense attorneys in practice locally. “It was a way to get support for my approach, to keep myself energized and inspired.”
Munkelt joined the board of California Attorneys for Criminal Justice in 2009, and was elected secretary in 2011, also serving on its legislative committee. He accepted the part-time executive director position last July.
‘The real deal’
“Several very, very impressive candidates applied,” said Jacqueline Goodman, the association’s past president. “In the end, it was an easy decision because we had seen what a remarkable lawyer, and a remarkable professional, he was.”
Goodman said California Attorneys for Criminal Justice is the main association for criminal defense attorneys in a state that produces some of the most highly regarded criminal defense lawyers in the country.
“The executive director has to be well-respected among the highest-caliber attorneys,” Goodman said. “Stephen really is somebody who is not putting on a show. He’s not fluff. He’s the real deal. … He always has some sage advice or an interesting take, he has always struck me as being smart and wise, which are not the same thing.”
Munkelt also has proven himself to be savvy and adept at the management aspect of the position, Goodman added.
“We made a very good choice,” she said.
“California Attorneys for Criminal Justice is the pre-eminent statewide organization for criminal defense attorneys,” local attorney David Alkire said. “They not only provide continuing legal education seminars, they also do important lobbying work in Sacramento in support of criminal justice reform. In order to have a new executive director of Munkelt’s stature is a great benefit.”
Munkelt said his interest in the position stemmed from a desire to reduce the amount of time he spent representing clients in court.
“This was an opportunity to do something new and refreshing, supporting goals I have been committed to my entire adult career,” he said.
‘BUILDING THE INFRASTRUCTURE’
Munkelt was not be able to pursue those goals right off the bat, however. He started right after one staff member left and the other went on vacation.
“I took over an office with nobody home,” he laughed.
Munkelt’s very first task became a personnel search. Next up: a complete redesign of the association website, which went live in November. Then, a revamping of outdated bookkeeping and accounting systems.
“I’ve spent an awful lot of my time building the infrastructure,” Munkelt said.
Now, he said, he will be able to turn his attention to helping the association’s committees become more active, assisting in lobbying efforts, strengthening ties with other state and national groups, and improving access to in-house legal education programs.
Recruitment of younger attorneys is a primary focus, Munkelt said, noting, “This generation of lawyers in their 30s, they don’t join organizations. … I have to figure out what resonates, to attract them.”
The association’s principal goals are two-fold, Munkelt said: Professional education, with seven seminars a year including one on capital cases, and legislation. The association wants California to adopt a jury selection protocol in death penalty cases that eliminates prosecutorial race and class bias, Munkelt said.
“The other top priority is to guide the bail reform process in California,” he said, “so that we have fewer people held in jail who have not been convicted of a crime.”
To contact Staff Writer Liz Kellar, email email@example.com or call 530-477-4236.
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