TAMPA — Hillsborough County Public Defender Julianne Holt, who for three decades has led the local office that represents defendants who can’t afford their own lawyers, will not seek reelection when her current term expires, and has endorsed attorney Rocky Brancato to be her successor.
“Rocky has the experience and has built substantial relationships that are essential to success for our clients and our staff,” Holt said in a statement to the Tampa Bay Times. “I wholeheartedly stand with Rocky for our next Public Defender.”
Holt’s retirement will punctuate a more than 40-year career, including the last 30 years at the helm of one of the most powerful offices in Hillsborough County.
She was a private defense lawyer before she ran in 1992 and defeated Judge C. Luckey, who had led the public defender’s office since 1971.
A Democrat, Holt faced Republican opposition in 1996, 2000 and 2004, but was reelected each time. In each subsequent election, she has drawn no challengers.
Brancato, who has worked in Holt’s office since 2003, is the office’s chief operations officer. He filed earlier this month to run in the 2024 election.
“These are very politically charged times,” he said in an interview with the Times. “I think what we do in the courtroom is important. What the government is going to do to the indigent population, that’s kind of a test for what is going to happen to the rest of us. Having a public defender’s office to support and enforce the Constitution is very important.”
Brancato said that he knew for a while that Holt intended to retire, and that she had said as much during a radio appearance a year ago.
“People don’t tend to believe her” about retirement, he said. “She’s serious about it.”
In her early years in office, Holt was dogged by ethics allegations and an investigation into her management of the office, but she was cleared of wrongdoing. The years since have seen her become a quiet but powerful player in local politics and a revered figure in the legal community. Political candidates routinely seek her endorsement. Last year, she received an award from the Florida Public Defender Association for her service and efforts to improve the state’s public defender system.
Her office is one of the largest law firms in the county. Their lawyers are often thrust into the spotlight to defend those accused of high-profile crimes. Holt herself has personally handled the defense of some cases.
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In her statement to the Times, Holt said Brancato has worked “side by side” with her for the last decade.
Though the election is two years away, he already has a fundraiser planned. He also started a campaign website, which features a long list of endorsements. They include Hillsborough County Sheriff Chad Chronister and Property Appraiser Bob Henriquez, along with numerous local defense lawyers.
“I do not want to see this office lose any of the good services we have here,” Brancato said. “We tend to get ahead of issues and are also tuned in to the problem-solving courts and diversionary pathways. And I’ve had a seat at the table for those issues for some time now. I want to use the experience I’ve gained here to ensure this office remains a leader in this state.”
Brancato earned a degree in political science from Utah State University in 1994 and a law degree from the University of North Dakota in 1998. He began his career as a public defender in Pensacola. He started in Holt’s office as a front-line lawyer in the office’s felony bureau and later became a major crimes trial attorney before joining the management team as a training director. Over the years, he has overseen the office’s misdemeanor, felony, juvenile and intake divisions.
As an attorney, Brancato has handled several high-profile cases.
He represented protester and provocateur Tony Daniel when he was accused of battery against two women who objected to an offensive sign he displayed. Brancato argued that Daniel defended himself against an imminent attack, eventually persuading a judge to dismiss the case.
He also represented Kendrick Morris, the teen convicted in a pair of rapes, including one that occurred outside the Bloomingdale Regional Public Library.
He was also part of the trial teams in the death penalty cases of Edward Covington and Richard McTear.
Brancato is, so far, the only candidate in the race to succeed Holt.
The Public Defender’s Office represents people accused of crimes who are deemed financially unable to afford their own lawyers. The office was created in the 1960s after the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that the Constitution requires states to appoint lawyers to represent indigent defendants.
In Hillsborough County, the office employs about 120 attorneys and has an annual budget of more than $23 million.
Times staff writer Sue Carlton contributed to this report.