LARGO — As Pinellas-Pasco Public Defender Bob Dillinger fights state-mandated budget cuts that prompted him to refuse hundreds of misdemeanor cases, he quietly has been fighting a private battle.
Dillinger, 56, was diagnosed with leukemia in December and underwent seven weeks of chemotherapy.
He told few people and spoke publicly about it for the first time Monday only after a reporter's inquiry. He said the cancer is in remission and doctors have told him it could stay that way for many years.
Dillinger said the cancer grew very fast after the diagnosis.
"I had tumors the size of baseballs in my neck, my armpit, my groin," he said.
The tumors vanished two days after his first chemotherapy session, but the treatments made him very weak. A bout of pneumonia kept him in the hospital for four days.
Dillinger, who was re-elected without opposition in May, said he continued to work from home while he was sick. He wanted to avoid the office, particularly during flu season, because his immune system was weak. He gets an immunity booster every month and hopes to have his immune system back to normal by August.
The leukemia prevented him from making his annual lobbying trip to Tallahassee. He doubts he could have dissuaded lawmakers from slashing his budget but, "I would have liked to have tried.''
Dillinger's diagnosis came about 15 months after his 32-year-old daughter, Beth, took her life.
Despite his personal turmoil, Dillinger said he will continue fighting the budget cuts, which required him to lay off about 20 lawyers and support staff last week for the first time in his 11 years as public defender. Before the cuts, Dillinger had a staff of about 200.
"It's been tough. It's been particularly tough on my wife, but it needs to be done," Dillinger said of waging a public battle while dealing with private misfortune. "The poor people have no lobbyist, so if they don't have someone out there fighting for them, they'll get truly squeezed."
Dillinger is cutting out a court division because he says his lawyers already carry five times the recommended case load, and budget cuts will make it worse. This is the first time in Pinellas history that a public defender has refused to take cases.
Miami-Dade County's public defender said last week that he will refuse felony cases, a step Dillinger won't take.
"Clients can really get hurt in felonies," he said.
University of Florida law professor Christopher Slobogin said state law requires public defenders to defend poor people. But the Constitution also requires that people receive effective lawyers. And if Dillinger thinks his burgeoning case load renders his lawyers ineffective, he might have a point.
In the 1990s, the Louisiana Supreme Court sided with the public defender in a similar case, prompting lawmakers to provide $5 million in additional funding.
"You have two constitutional doctrines bumping up against each other," Slobogin said. "Ideally, what would happen is the Legislature would blink and provide more funding."
Stetson University College of Law Professor Robert Batey said Dillinger's actions are justified.
"The Legislature has created a severe problem for the entire court system, and it's a dereliction of their duty," Batey said. "They've created the problem and they need to do something about it. This is not a matter of luxury. This is something that's constitutionally required."