Joyce Marie Taylor
Third Judicial Circuit State Attorney Jeff Siegmeister was the featured guest at the Rotary Club of Mayo on Wednesday, April 24, and he gave a little background on himself, as well as his duties as State Attorney.
The Third Circuit has four offices, with the main office in Suwannee County, and encompasses seven counties: Lafayette, Dixie, Taylor, Madison, Hamilton, Columbia and Suwannee, with a total of 65-68 employees. Siegmeister said they look at about 2,000 cases a month.
“It’s the biggest number of counties in the state,” said Siegmeister. “All of them are small, rural counties.”
Siegmeister lives in Columbia County and runs the four offices in the district that covers about 100,000 square miles of geography.
“We are the biggest law firm between Tallahassee, Jacksonville and Gainesville,” said Siegmeister.
Former State Attorney Jerry Blair, Siegmeister said, had a very senior staff of prosecutors when he was a young intern and it was sort of implicit that new people coming in were going to learn from somebody with experience. There also wasn’t a lot of turnover.
“Over the last 10 years, the average age of the office has gone from about 15 years experience to probably about three,” he said. “Just putting two senior attorneys in the Live Oak office has busted the budget, and I haven’t hired anybody new. Just moving people around has been a nightmare.”
He joked that this is the first time in his adult life that his last name has done him any good, due to name recognition during the recent election.
“I have to convince people that I actually am from North Florida,” he said. “I am, by last count, a sixth generation Floridian. My grandpa had 21 brothers and sisters from what was New River County and most of them are dead and buried in Lake Butler.”
Siegmeister said it wasn’t much of a culture shock when he got out of law school to take a job with Jerry Blair as a prosecutor in the Lake City office.
“As a State Attorney, our primary goal is to prosecute criminal offenses,” said Siegmeister. “I have a lot of common sense and I’m a “buck stops here” kind of person.”
Siegmeister said he may be young in years, but he was raised by people who grew up during the depression.
“I cropped tobacco for six years, so I’m happy to wear a suit and get a little hot,” he said. “If anyone ever wants to complain about work, crop tobacco. It’s the hardest work a man or a woman could ever do. I honestly believe that.”
Siegmeister said of his position as State Attorney, “I’ve been to a couple of these civic speeches and I guess I’ll answer to you in four years if my decisions are wrong, but I will answer to you.”
He said there are way too many laws, but his job is to enforce them.
“It’s not to legalize anything, it’s not to ignore anything, however, how I deal with them has got to be bared by my conscience and hopefully all of your support.”
As an example, he said, if one is a victim of a major theft like a tractor, the victim wants his property back and he wants the perpetrator to be sent to prison.
“Sometimes that’s not going to happen,” he said. “We have to choose between getting your tractor back so you can get your crops in, and giving the bad guy probation. Is it the best job? No, it’s not, but I can answer for saying that guy got probation for stealing a tractor from ma and pa farm, versus Pilgrim’s Pride losing a tractor because that’s nothing to them. They’re a big company. They’ll write it off on their taxes and charge us more for a pound of chicken.”
Siegmeister said former State Attorney Jerry Blair was a very good mentor, whether he knew it or not.
“He taught me a couple of very valuable rules,” said Siegmeister. “You don’t try cases unless you know and believe the person is guilty. You don’t always have to try a case you know you’re going to win, though.”
Sometimes the principle of fighting matters, Siegmeister continued. His duty, he added, is to the public.
He said, “I’m not happy where my country is going, so I signed up and said, what can I do?”
Siegmeister has limited experience as an assistant state attorney about 10 years ago, as well as running his own business as a defense attorney.
“Having done both, I’d rather be a prosecutor,” he said. “I value what defense attorneys do, but having tried almost 200 cases from everything from petit theft to murder, I’d rather prosecute a murderer than have to give him his defense. I will defend their right to have a defense. I just don’t believe I should be the one to do it. Hopefully, God willing, I’ll stay in this job until it’s time for me to ride off into other things...the beach somewhere.”
Siegmeister said he will never know how well he is doing because stories of the people he gives a second chance to won’t make it back to him, as do the ones who continue to break the law.
“I’m only going to know if I’m wrong,” he said. “If I give your child a second chance because they made a mistake and next week they’re robbing stores, then I was wrong. I’m never going to see the success stories; the kid I let go in the military and he turns out to be a hero one day and not a criminal, because I wouldn’t know the evidence. So, it’s just one of those leaps of faith. I guess that’s what faith is about.”
Siegmeister said he would much rather be in a courtroom trying cases than be an administrator trying to get four separate offices to run smoothly.
“I’m hoping ideally that when the place runs like I want it to run, if ever, that I will spend more time dealing with quality control,” said Siegmeister. “I honestly want good prosecutors with common sense that do the right thing. They may not always agree with me, but they should be able to stand up and say, “I made this decision because...””
Then they need to provide a solid reason why, he said.
“I’m hoping to teach them,” Siegmeister said. “It’s just going to take time.”