By Patrick McArdle
Attorney Chris Davis, Rutland’s newest public defender, started his law career with the goal of practicing environmental law, but said he loves what he’s doing now.
Davis joined the Rutland County Office of the Public Defender in late January as one of four attorneys who are the first to be appointed when a defendant in Rutland County goes to court.
After serving in various law firms that had public-defender contracts, Davis said he recognized it was work he wanted to do full time.
“I always had a respect for the rights of the accused and the process involved, the idea that the state has the bulk of the charges. They file charges. They make requests for conditions and rules and bail that may result in someone being incarcerated. It may result in no-contact provisions with friends and family. Being a check against the exercise of that power and doing it well, I think, leads to the responsible exercise of that power,” he said.
Davis grew up on the Gulf Coast in Long Beach, Mississippi. After graduating law school in Long Beach, he went to Centre College in Kentucky, where he met his wife, Britney Csik.
After Davis’ junior year, his uncle, who worked for the Tennessee Department of Water and Conservation and was very involved with environmental issues, asked if he had ever considered attending Vermont Law School for its environmental law programs.
“As a history major in a liberal arts school, I did not have a plan for what was going to happen next, so I decided to pursue that further,” he said
Prior to his move to Vermont, Davis said, he had never been north of New York City.
While pursuing his law degree, he and his wife decided they wanted to stay in Vermont.
“While I didn’t have any job leads or connections, once I finished law school, we decided to stay and figure it out,” he said.
Davis earned his master’s degree by doing an internship at the National Wildlife Federation and at the defender general’s office.
After graduating in 2010, Davis had a number of odd jobs, including working at a grocery store in Woodstock and delivering pizza for Ramunto’s in Hanover, New Hampshire.
By mid-2011, through the Vermont Bar Association’s mentorship program, Davis became involved with a Stowe law firm, Breton & Simon. Davis said he believed his interest in environmental law was a factor, because the Stowe firm was involved in a case in Lowell in which residents had concerns about proposed wind turbines.
By 2012, Breton & Simon took a contract from the state to handle criminal defense and juvenile cases. Davis said he had been interested in public defense but didn’t have a lot of experience. Once Breton & Simon took the contract, Davis said it quickly became his focus.
Davis went on to become the primary attorney for juvenile cases at a St. Johnsbury firm. While at that firm, he became the primary public defender for Caledonia County cases where a public defender might have a conflict of interest.
From there, Davis came to Rutland County.
Mary Kay Lanthier, supervising attorney in the Rutland County public defender’s office, said Davis had come to them with a “great deal of experience in criminal defense.”
“He has proven to be an effective advocate, demonstrating both knowledge of the law as well as compassion and respect for our clients. He’s absolutely committed to the idea of public defense,” she said.
Lanthier said she believes the Rutland County office is already a strong team, and Davis fit in well with those colleagues.
Davis said the level of support he had gotten in the office had made the transition to the local court easier. Before he came to the office, Davis said, Rutland County was one of two counties where he had never practiced.
However, he said Judge Thomas Zonay had presided in Caledonia County, so for Davis, Zonay’s presence provided some familiarity.
Davis said he believed it was important for Vermont to have attorneys who offered a vigorous defense for their clients.
“The system functions much better with attorneys who will work hard to assure the state is functioning at the highest level of fairness it can for everybody involved. … If we have that check and are paying attention to the law and to the constitutional rights of our clients and we are presenting those issues in court, then everyone is elevated because of that,” he said.