Alumni News
June 13, 2016

Bulldogs are up to something!

Alumni Phyllis Morris ‘80 and Chris Gardner ‘92 have dedicated their professional careers to justice in their roles as the Chief Public Defender and Assistant Public Defender for San Bernardino County.

Along with their colleagues, they represent those most in need of advocates: individuals accused of a felony who cannot afford representation, youth under the age of 18 accused of a crime and individuals facing a commitment because of mental health issues. Both are leaders in their field and have remarkable Redlands stories as a result of their own academic efforts and encounters with caring staff and faculty.

Morris graduated from the University of Redlands with a degree in psychology, a minor in economics and a reputation among faculty members as an outstanding scholar.  A political science professor remembered her dedication and professionalism and contacted her after graduation to let her know of a program at U. C. Davis School of Law. As a result, Morris enrolled and obtained her Juris Doctorate of Law from UCD in 1983. While an attorney with the Public Defender’s Office and armed with a master’s degree in public administration, she took on the role of interim Chief Public Defender in 2010 and was appointed to the position permanently in 2012.

Today, as the Chief of the largest law firm in the County, Morris oversees more than 200 employees, a large budget and approximately 50,000 cases per year. Her proactive approach to the work of the organization she leads includes award-winning prevention programs like MAP – Make Attendance a Priority. MAP partners social workers with the juvenile courts, schools and families to reduce truancy, a factor in juvenile crime. She championed a multi-phased project to increase efficiency, be cost effective and enhance service by facilitating an important transition in her office from a paper record system to a digital system using iPad technology. As a result, the Public Defender’s Office was able to reduce costs and increase productivity. 

Gardner and his parents learned of the University at a presentation then-Dean of Admissions Paul Driscoll made at Gardner’s high school in Salt Lake City, Utah. On campus, professors including Art Svenson and Kathie Jeni made a lasting impression on Gardner. He enjoyed the small class sizes, developed lifelong friendships and met his wife Marcie (’94) here. A pivotal moment for Gardner occurred during a semester he spent working as an intern in Washington DC at their Public Defender’s Office.  He discovered the Public Defender’s Office struggling with a system that was unfair. That office was sorely under-resourced and the balance of justice was far off. It was during that internship opportunity that he decided he would dedicate his professional career to this important work.

Morris, Gardner and their colleagues at the Public Defender’s Office are actively involved in connecting clients and families with legal and social resources and creating and implementing effective outreach opportunities. They host Mock Trial events at the high school level and offer programs to assist those who have had convictions with the Community Plea Program and other initiatives that offer a path to rejoin the greater community. Their focus on community is integral to the mission of the Public Defender’s Office – promoting justice and protecting Constitutional rights through effective representation- advocating for fairness under the law for all.