The son also rises
Corbin Brewster, the ‘sins’ of the father, and Tulsa County politics
Dylan Goforth / The Frontier
Tulsa attorney Corbin Brewster will be Tulsa County’s next chief public defender, replacing Rob Nigh.1
That name … Corbin Brewster? Isn’t his father Clark Brewster, the guy who has represented Tulsa County, the Tulsa County Sheriff’s Office, and then-Sheriff Stanley Glanz? Doesn’t Corbin work for his father at Brewster & DeAngelis, the firm that represented TCSO and Glanz in the death of Elliot Williams, a man who died of a broken neck and dehydration on the floor of the Tulsa County Jail?2
Didn’t Corbin, along with his father, also represent Tulsa Sheriff Deputy Robert Bates in a second-degree manslaughter case in the shooting death of Eric Harris? Didn’t they also file suit that Bates was getting inhumane treatment in the Tulsa County Jail, while also defending the Tulsa County Jail against those who alleged it was treating prisoners inhumanely? Didn’t Corbin’s mother and sister also contribute to racking up hundreds of thousands of dollars as Tulsa County appraisers, jobs that were parceled out by—wait for it—Sheriff Stanley Glanz?3 (Even Glanz admitted this was a bit gamey, saying at one point, “I’m sure there’s maybe a perception problem, but I don’t consider it one.”4)
That Corbin Brewster is the new Chief Tulsa County Public Defender?
What happened? Was Terry Simonson unavailable?
Nobody seems to know. The judges who chose Brewster last month might as well have sent up a puff of white smoke from the courthouse chimney, for all anyone knew of the process.5
Many attorneys were critical of the secrecy surrounding the appointment, saying that unlike in years past, the job was never opened for applications. Instead, the belief is that a “headhunting” committee of local attorneys—some with deep ties to the Brewsters—identified Corbin Brewster as a leading candidate.
The specifics surrounding the appointment process are vague and will likely remain so. Judges, who are tasked with selecting the chief public defender, are exempt from much of the Oklahoma Open Records Act. A request for emails, memos, and sign-in sheets for the monthly judges meetings was denied by Court Administrator Vickie Cox.6
Tulsa County’s system of having judges select public defenders is actually not all that unusual—refusing to release documents seems below and beyond the call of duty, though—but there are places—Florida, Tennessee, California, and Nebraska, —where PDs are actually elected.7
There’s good reason to do so.
“You’re very rarely going to see a public defender system bring a lawsuit,” [David] Carroll says. “Unless that system has independence, they’re always going to be afraid to sort of stick their head above the bunker. You see Miami-Dade bring
it, for instance, because the public defender is publicly elected and only beholden to the electorate.”
We elect district attorneys. Why not elect public defenders?
But back to our show.
The optics of naming Brewster the Younger to this position stink.
“Here’s why it looks bad,” said former Tulsa Public Defender Jill Webb, when I called her.
“Generally,” she said, “defense attorneys want a case to be dismissed, prosecutors want a conviction, and judges just want the case off of their dockets. Because the court system is so overused and understaffed, it depends on plea bargains to function. If only half of the people assigned a public defender took their cases to trial, the system as a whole would cease to function. So, you have an inherent conflict just by having the Chief PD chosen by the judges.”
When I went to see Dan Smolen of Smolen, Smolen & Roytman, he was, shall we say, less diplomatic than Webb.
“They don’t care about optics,” he said.
The bad blood between Dan Smolen and Clark Brewster has been curdling for years,8 culminating in the Eliot Williams trial, where they opposed each other. So, it’s a good idea to have a hall monitor and a firehose when these two are in the same room. That said, Smolen has a point.
“I have nothing against Corbin Brewster personally,” he told me. “However, as a citizen, I have real concerns with him taking on the public defender role. We have brought numerous cases involving serious mistreatment of indigent inmates at the jail. The Brewster Law Firm, including Corbin, has vigorously defended these lawsuits. Now, as the public defender, Corbin will be representing hundreds of indigent inmates housed at Tulsa County Jail. What happens the next time one of these inmates is assaulted in the jail? What happens the next time one of these inmates is denied necessary medical treatment at the jail? Will the inmates feel comfortable coming forward with that information, knowing that the leader of the public defender’s office has spent years defending the sheriff against alleged Constitutional violations at the Tulsa County Jail? If Corbin receives notice from one of his indigent clients, of alleged Constitutional violations or criminal misconduct in the jail, will he not have divided loyalties? After all, his father’s law firm still represents the Tulsa County Sheriff’s Office in cases that stem from such allegations. I think this is problematic.”
Wes Johnson, a Tulsa trial lawyer since 1977 and member of the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers and the American Civil Liberties Union, can’t throw enough shade on the above.
“A lawyer,” he told me, “can work at different times for opposing legal institutions. In fact there are lawyers currently on the PD’s staff who have been prosecutors. Remember, the PD’s office does not represent jail inmates—their criminal clients—who might have some complaint. Those types of litigation have to be processed by a civil practitioner, not a public defender. They only do criminal representation, nothing civil, so no conflict.”
If you asked ten Tulsa County public defenders/lawyers in town to name their top five picks for the public defender’s office, would Brewster have made anyone’s list?
“No way,” Webb said. “Especially not before he was nominated. He doesn’t have enough trial experience to have credibility with attorneys. But that doesn’t mean he can’t be an excellent leader.”
Politically, Brewster was better positioned than the other two candidates, public defenders Stuart Southerland and Marny Hill, to get the gig. Capable or not, experienced or not, it’s pretty obvious Corbin Brewster doesn’t get the job if his last name isn’t Brewster.
Johnson, for one, preferred Southerland “due to his long tenure as a public defender with the office, the relationships he has established within the legal community, and his recognized legal acumen.”
As for the Brewster & DeAngelis law firm, nobody has ever confused it with (or is asking it to be) the Southern Poverty Law Center. Still, it is a go-to legal firm for Tulsa’s powerful and well-connected, often representing law enforcement officials against citizens who accuse them of corruption and the jail against citizens who accuse it of abuse. Is this really the garden from which we should keep picking our chief public defenders?
And then there’s the matter of the former chief Rob Nigh’s endorsement of Brewster.
“They really couldn’t have gotten someone better,” Nigh said. “He’s good. You couldn’t have gotten a better appointment.”9
Nigh, too, had worked for Brewster & DeAngelis, alongside Corbin, alongside Clark, both before and after his stint in the PD’s office.
Everywhere this goes, there’s a whiff of nepotism, cronyism, mendacity, and secrecy. And while, yes, Nigh did come from the same office as Corbin Brewster, Nigh did not defend Bates, did not represent Glanz, did not represent the jail, and didn’t have a wife and daughter who rummaged through the assessor’s office as if it was the family attic.
Here’s Clark Brewster during the aforementioned Williams case:
“You’ve got—and I’m not trying to in any way denigrate the population in any way, but you have drug-addicted people, you’ve got psychopaths, you’ve got sociopaths, you’ve got real security concerns, you have people that have just chronic illnesses.”10
And now all those drug-addicted psychopathic sociopaths with chronic illnesses he’s not denigrating have a new lawyer—his son.
But maybe it’s just the optics.
A few Fridays back, I spoke to Webb and asked if Nigh—her dear friend—would be willing to talk to me about his comments supporting Brewster.
“Call him,” she said, and gave me the number.
“I don’t know him. You do. He’s been sick. I do and don’t want to bother him with this, so see what he thinks first.”
She said that was the better plan. “I’ll let you know when I hear from him.”
He died two days later.