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Robert Jagger, first Pinellas-Pasco public defender, valued life and due process

Robert Jagger became public defender for Pinellas County in 1961, two years before a U.S. Supreme Court decision led to the creation of the job everywhere. He stayed for 35 years.

As a child, Ed Jagger knew that his dad, Robert, mentored the young lawyers who constantly circulated in and out of their home. They even, at times, vacationed with the family. And he knew that many of his dad’s best friends were the retired police officers who came to work as his investigators.

But he didn’t know much about what his dad actually did, except this: Every Christmas Day, after the family opened presents, his dad would change into a suit and excuse himself for a few hours, saying, “I’m going off to work to get people out of jail.”

Later, after Ed Jagger became an attorney himself and, eventually, a Pinellas County judge, he realized what his dad was doing all those Christmases — volunteering to handle his clients’ first appearances in court so his employees wouldn’t have to.

Robert Jagger, the Pinellas-Pasco Circuit Court’s first public defender, died July 28. He was 92. His son said the family did not know the specific cause of death, but that Mr. Jagger had experienced complications after cancer surgery earlier this year.

Mr. Jagger had been a lawyer for just three years when, in 1961, he was offered a newly created job: representing people who’d been accused of crimes in Pinellas County but couldn’t afford to hire an attorney. He accepted, thinking he’d get good experience in two or three years and move on to something else, according to a 1995 St. Petersburg Times profile of him.

He stayed for 35 years. By the time he left office in 1996, the National Legal Aid and Defenders Association said he was likely the longest-serving public defender in the country of his era.

Related: From the archive: For 34 years, the loyal opposition

Two years after he started the Pinellas County job, a U.S. Supreme Court ruling led to the creation of public defenders across the country. Jagger’s job expanded to cover both Pinellas and Pasco counties. It wasn’t the kind of job that made him a household name, but over the next three and a half decades, he left an indelible mark on the region’s criminal justice system.

The job was essentially a one-man show when Mr. Jagger began, his son recalled. By the end of his career, it had expanded to dozens of assistant public defenders and hundreds of staffers spread across four offices. His caseload grew from 470 cases in the first year to more than 35,000 in the mid-1990s.

He loved his job, those close to him said, but he never let it encroach on time with his family. He was a staunch Republican who despised the death penalty. As he aged along with his job, he took great zeal in transitioning his offices from IBM Selectric typewriters to computers.

Robert Jagger poses for a photo with his grandsons at his cabin in Sylva, N.C. Jagger, who served for 35 years as the Pinellas-Pasco circuit court's first public defender, died Tuesday. He was 92. [ Courtesy of Ed Jagger ]

And to those who worked for and around him, his greatest legacy was one of opportunity and mentorship. In the 1960s, at Stetson University College of Law, he helped establish the first law school clinic in Florida, which allowed volunteer students to argue cases before a judge; such programs are now widespread.

Young attorneys who worked for him as assistant public defenders went on to become well-known trial lawyers, and, in the case of current public defender Bob Dillinger, his successor.

Many of the young attorneys Mr. Jagger hired lacked eye-catching resumes, Ed Jagger recalled. That didn’t matter to his father, who looked for one particular skill: Could the job candidate communicate well, whether arguing a case before a judge or sitting down with a jailed client?

“When my dad interviews, he never looks at a resume beyond the person’s name,” Ed Jagger said. “He said he was just looking for someone he could sit down with and talk to like a next-door neighbor.”

Pinellas-Pasco Chief Judge Anthony Rondolino began his legal career in Mr. Jagger’s office in 1974. He stayed 15 years, including about 10 as chief assistant public defender. As a young lawyer, he was particularly impressed by the work-life balance Mr. Jagger embodied, he said: The increasing demands of the job didn’t stop him from coaching his sons’ little league teams.

“You had to be careful that the work didn’t consume you,” Rondolino said, “because it could do that.”

Karl Grube, a senior trial court judge for the state, attended the public defender clinic while studying at Stetson. In 1970, he became an assistant public defender for Pasco County — the only one for the whole county at the time.

“Bob was amazing, because he could find money” at a time when the office had little, Grube said. “Because otherwise, you didn’t take depositions. You couldn’t have witnesses. You couldn’t travel to Raiford (where Florida State Prison is located) to talk to someone who was in custody who believed they hadn’t been accorded due process.”

Grube said Mr. Jagger created an environment for young attorneys to break out of their comfort zones and become better — not just as lawyers, but as people. Before working for the public defender’s office, Grube said, he’d never knowingly met someone charged with a felony, and he’d rarely interacted with people who were poor, illiterate or Black.

He learned something about the intrinsic value of humanity, he said, even when he knew some of his clients had committed awful crimes.

“I had to sit back and put aside my knowledge of what they had done,” Grube said. “I knew that these people had done terrible, terrible things. But they were human beings. They were a life.”

Though his office sometimes handled high-profile cases, he never became known for cinematic courtroom battles. He saw himself not as a crusader, but simply as someone whose job it was to protect people’s rights.

Eventually, his office grew big enough that he took a more administrative role, rarely appearing in courtrooms himself. Though prosecutors were his opponents, the two parties could also work together.

“What impressed me about both Bob Jagger and my predecessor Jimmy Russell, compared to other areas of the state, was that they were able to work together along with the courts on system issues, keeping the system running without turf battles,” said State Attorney Bernie McCabe. “Those sorts of things didn’t happen.”

Mr. Jagger’s increasingly administrative role was the target of criticism from his former assistant public defender, Dillinger, who successfully ran against him in 1996. After that, Mr. Jagger did some work at the law firm where his son Ed worked, and when the younger Jagger became judge in 2005, Mr. Jagger officially retired.

Robert Jagger, left, poses with son Ed Jagger and grandsons at a Tampa Bay Rays game. Jagger, who was Pinellas-Pasco public defender for 35 years, spent time with family and watched baseball in his retirement. [ Courtesy of Ed Jagger ]

Mr. Jagger and his wife, Jo Ann, spent half the year in North Carolina and half in Florida, Ed Jagger said. He hung out with his grandchildren, watched the Rays and wrote a book with a title that referred to some of his notable cases: “Murder Voodoo Hypnosis and the Jag.”

So many people still working in the court system — including about 15 Pinellas-Pasco judges, at Rondolino’s estimate — worked under Mr. Jagger that he was known around the courthouses as “The Boss,” Rondolino said.

A scholarship at Stetson will be endowed in his name, Ed Jagger said. No funeral is planned, due to the coronavirus pandemic.

In May 1962, the St. Petersburg Times profiled Mr. Jagger, then still fresh in his role as Pinellas County public defender. He talked about how the new job had shifted his worldview.

“When I first started to practice, I would have been repulsed by most of the people I now represent,” he said. “In my heart I might have condemned them. Today, the fact that I am the only one they can turn to, plus the responsibility I feel toward them, enables me to talk to them compassionately. I know that under the law, until proven otherwise, they are as innocent as I.”

The article included a photograph of Mr. Jagger, then 34. His hair is neat and shiny, his mouth upturned a bit, his body slightly hunched over the table. The caption calls him “the last hope for many of Pinellas County’s lost men.” A client in a “P.C. Prisoner” jumpsuit sits across from him. Iron bars crisscross the door and window, but Mr. Jagger seems at ease. He’s looking the man in the eye.

A 1962 photo, originally published in the St. Petersburg Times and produced here from a scanned copy, shows then-34-year-old Robert Jagger talking to a client. Jagger was about a year into his job as Pinellas County's public defender. [ Courtesy of Ed Jagger ]


Born: Aug. 12, 1927

Died: July 28, 2020

Survivors: Wife, Jo Ann; sons Robert (Kathleen) and Edwin (Melissa); grandchildren Jackie, Paige, Jacob and Blake; nephews Robert, Scott and Randy Rule; cousin Beverly Brady.

Those we’ve lost:

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