Vision 2019 | Cambria County’s chief public defender lends listening ear

Maribeth Schaffer, Cambria County’s chief public defender, speaks during an interview with The Tribune-Democrat at Cambria County Courthouse on Jan. 28, 2019.

EBENSBURG – Maribeth Schaffer said she isn’t sure why more women don’t pursue criminal defense work. 

As Cambria County’s chief public defender, Schaffer is tasked with balancing a fluctuating caseload and assigning 11 staff defense attorneys to cover preliminary hearings at magistrates’ offices countywide, along with daily proceedings at the Cambria County Courthouse. 

Schaffer said while criminal defense law is challenging, she also finds it rewarding. 

“To be able to say I helped one person is beneficial,” she said. “There are so many people who have stories to tell, someone just has to listen to them. It’s just nice to give someone an ear sometimes.” 

She added: “Sometimes the defendants are really difficult.” 

But Schaffer thanked Cambria County’s judges, sheriff’s deputies and corrections officers who have made sure she and other female attorneys feel safe. 

“Do I ever feel afraid? Sometimes,” she said. “But, not very often. I mean, we’re there to help.” 

Schaffer, who has been in her current role for the past three years, grew up in Union County and earned her bachelor’s degree from the University of Dayton. 

She then decided to pursue her law degree at Duquesne University and, after graduation, spent two years working at for the state’s Superior Court in Greensburg. 

Schaffer found herself in Cambria County after her husband, Jack, started a job at a local engineering firm.

She began working as Judge F. Joseph Leahey’s law clerk in 1995 and joined the Cambria County Public Defender’s Office in 1998. 

Aside from her work at the courthouse, Schaffer has two children: Peter, 23, and Julia, 20. 

When she first became a public defender, Schaffer took a full-time position covering juvenile and DUI cases. But over the years, she experienced and handled a variety of areas, which influenced her decision to interview for the chief public defender position in 2016. 

“It was the right time,” she said.  

Increased drug abuse in the region often brings a spike in retail theft, which has become evident at two magistrate offices – District Judge Frederick Creany in Ebensburg and District Judge Susan Gindlesperger in Geistown.

In the past, Schaffer said, both offices weren’t known for carrying a large number of cases, but both have Walmart stores in their jurisdictions. 

“That caseload is tripled from the retail thefts in those areas,” Schaffer said. 

Among the duties she attends to in her position, Schaffer said she’s most proud of the work Cambria County is doing in its mental health and veteran’s court efforts. 

“They’re two really strong programs we have,” she said, helping people in specific situations. 

She’s also proud of the experience in her office, with several attorneys who have decades of experience and certification to handle death penalty cases. 

The duties assigned to the attorneys in Schaffer’s office, four of which are full time, are constant. 

“Our caseloads are crazy,” she said. “We’re all really busy.”

​Jocelyn Brumbaugh is a reporter for the Tribune-Democrat. Follow her on Twitter @JBrumbaughTD.

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