The history of Federal Defenders of San Diego, Inc. dates back to the creation of the Southern District of California in 1966. The late Circuit Judge James M. Carter envisioned the establishment of a defender organization that could provide the justice system high quality indigent defense in the new district. This original defender organization was quite small. Housed in the basement of the old federal courthouse, it had only three attorneys and a very small staff. It grew quickly, however, and in 1968 it was expanded to provide defense services for the state trial courts. Different than a traditional Federal Public Defender, this defender organization was structured as a non-profit law firm, with a board of directors and an executive director. The community defender organization was so successful that in 1971, a new corporation was created exclusively to deal with federal cases. Federal Defenders of San Diego, Inc. (FDSDI) was born and designated as the community defender the Southern District of California.
John J. Cleary was the first Executive Director from 1971 to 1983. It was during this time, that FDSDI developed into a distinguished and highly respected office, where attorneys were trained extensively in federal law and trial skills, and expected to aggressively represent clients from trial and through appeal. It was in the office's infancy that it began its long history of appellate victories both at the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals and the United States Supreme Court. John Cleary, himself, successfully argued three Supreme Court cases, including the hallmark decision in United States v. Brignoni-Ponce, 422 U.S. 873 (1975), which challenged law enforcement's use of racial profiling. After his departure from FDSDI, John helped establish the law firm Cleary and Sevilla, which specialized in criminal defense. In 2004, John left private practice to teach for the Fulbright program at Moscow State University, in Russia.
Following John's departure in 1983 Judy Clarke took over the as Executive Director from 1983 to 1991. Under Judy's leadership, FDSDI continued to grow in size and maintained its reputation for excellent and aggressive representation. During her tenure, the federal sentencing scheme changed dramatically and Judy quickly became an expert in the field. Judy eventually left FDSDI to lead the newly created federal defender office in the Eastern District of Washington and Idaho, which she successfully did for many years. Judy Clarke is so highly regarded as an attorney, that after she left FDSDI she was appointed in many high-profile cases, most notably as Ted Kaczynski's attorney. Judy also served as co-counsel in the South Carolina case against Susan Smith, who was accused of drowning her two children. Judy continues to have an outstanding reputation as a leading specialist in federal capital cases. She is currently serving as Capital Resource Counsel based at FDSDI but collaborating with attorneys representing clients facing the death penalty around the country.
Mario G. Conte took over the leadership of the office from 1991 to 2004. Before he became a lawyer, Mario served in the United States Air Force. He first came to FDSDI in 1979, where he rose through the ranks to eventually become Executive Director. Under Mario, FDSDI remained committed to outstanding trial work and to that end, Mario maintained a rigorous program for the continuing education of his lawyers. While at FDSDI, he served as an adjunct professor of law at California Western School of Law, where he taught evidence advocacy and trial skills. Eventually, he helped establish the LL.M. program in Trial Advocacy for Cal Western, the first such program in the nation. Currently, Mario is an adjunct professor teaching evidence and trial skills at California Western School of Law.
Reuben Camper Cahn became the Executive Director of FDSDI in 2005. He began his career in indigent defense with the Office of the Public Defender for the 17th Judicial Circuit (Broward County) Florida. While there, Reuben tried cases ranging from misdemeanors to capital homicides. In 1993, Reuben became an Assistant Federal Public Defender for the Southern District of Florida and, in 1995, the Chief Assistant of that office. During his years in the Southern District of Florida, Reuben represented clients charged with a variety of federal gun, drug, immigration, fraud, and homicide charges. He also acted as learned counsel in a number of federal capital prosecutions. Reuben has taught widely on various topics of federal criminal trial practice and, in particular, federal capital trial practice.
With Reuben at the helm, FDSDI has continued its reputation as one of the best defender organizations in the country. It has produced some of the most well-known and highly respected attorneys in California.
Any discussion of the history of FDSDI would be woefully incomplete without paying homage to a legend who embodied the spirit and tenacity of this organization, but who unfortunately is no longer with us. Please visit Ben's Memorial to learn more about our dear friend, Benjamin Rayborn.