"What a huge responsibility she’s taking on, but she’s going to be great at it,” Maureen Corkery said of Mary McElroy, 46, who yesterday was sworn in as Rhode Island Public Defender during a ceremony that took place at the State House.
McElroy is the first female public defender in Rhode Island history, replacing the late, and highly regarded, John Hardiman.
“I’ve known Mary since she was in kindergarten,” Corkery said, her former neighbor from Apponaug Heights, “and she was always a fighter – not in an unpleasant way – she was just always thinking ahead and saying, ‘Is this fair?’ She’s always had it in her.”
Corkery’s husband, Neil, agrees, as does their son, Michael, who grew up with McElroy. The family fondly remembers planning carnivals together, the proceeds of which were donated to fight muscular dystrophy.
But their trip to Disney World in Florida as children stands out most in Michael’s mind.
“All we wanted to do was stay in the pool,” he said with a smile. “She was like extended family.”
McElroy’s parents, Edwina and Ed McElroy, were at the event, as well, which drew nearly 100 people. Like the Corkerys, they couldn’t be more proud.
“She has always been such a great advocate,” Edwina said, moments after her daughter was sworn in. “I’m happy for her.” Ed, the former head of the Warwick Teachers Union who went on to become president of the American Federation of Teachers from 2004 to 2008, continued, “I’m humbled. Mary is a wonderful young woman and a great family member. I can’t judge her legal skills because I’m not a lawyer, but I know all of the people who are lawyers think the world of her. The fact that she’s female shouldn’t be overlooked because it’s a step in the direction of civil human rights.”
John J. McConnell Jr., U.S. District Court Judge, served as the master of ceremonies. He shared Ed’s sentiments.
“Another glass ceiling has been broken today with the appointment of Mary McElroy,” he said.
McElroy, who also spoke at the event, hasn’t changed much since she was a child, as she appeared poised, confident and more than ready to take on her newly acquired job.
She said she is honored to follow the example set by her predecessor, Hardiman, and plans to do everything she can to continue his legacy as a strong leader.
“John was my friend and my teacher, two things that don’t go hand-in-hand all the time,” she said. “He understood that a holistic approach to criminal defense was not only better for the client but better for all of us.”
Further, McElroy said she is deeply committed to fighting for the “constitutional rights of everyone, no matter how unpopular their case is. This is truly a dream appointment. I take this role very seriously and I look forward to working with everyone to fulfill my public duty.”
Also, she acknowledged her family, including her husband Richard Jordan, and their two children Evan, 12, and Chloe, 6, for giving her the support she needs to be successful. She knows that at times her loved ones get the short end of the stick, as she often spends time away from home at work.
Still, she is optimistic they are learning a valuable lesson.
“I was raised in a family where we were taught to do what we loved and believed in,” she said. “So, I hope that my children look back at their lives and realize that the times I wasn’t there was to help them in their lives, as well, because that’s the kind of role I want them to inherit.”
For Evan, he’s just pleased to see his mother succeed.
“It’s exciting for her,” he said. “She’s going to like it. I think she’ll fit in very well.”
Governor Lincoln Chafee administered the oath to McElroy, a public defender with nearly 20 years of experience at the state and federal level.
In the course of her career, Chafee said, she was able to gain the admiration and respect of clients, colleagues of the judicial community and adversaries alike. He noted that he received “many, many” letters of support for her candidacy as public defender.
Those who have worked closely with McElroy weren’t surprised. Olin W. Thompson III, assistant federal defender, said that he met McElroy when he began his career at the state public office years ago. He viewed her as a mentor who helped him “think like a public defender.”
More importantly, he said, she showed him the value of being a public defender at heart.
“She taught me the need to be zealous but also to be reasonable,” Thompson said to the assembly. “As I grew to be her peer, we worked together on cases and I can say with all honesty that the times I have most enjoyed being an attorney and being a public defender, as well as the time I’ve been the most productive, have been working alongside Mary McElroy. I know from experience that she will inspire and bring out the best in everyone at the Rhode Island office as a public defender.”
Attorney John E. MacDonald had a similar story, as he said he feels honored to have had a “front row seat to Mary’s rise in the community” and noted that, “it was clear from the beginning that she was a very formidable attorney with a vast array of skills. She quickly earned the respect of prosecutors, judges, fellow defense attorneys and the public defender staff.”
Further, MacDonald said that he had to take on her former clients. The responsibility, he said, was no small task, as her clients “love” her.
“Their first question always was, ‘Where’s Mary?’ When I answered that, the second question was, ‘How can I get Mary back?’” MacDonald said. “The transition was much smoother when I assured my new clients that I would work just as hard as Mary did. She truly cares, always listens and always fights hard for her clients.”
Before the ceremony kicked-off, A.T. Wall, the director of the Department of Corrections in Cranston, said he has come to know McElroy as a woman with a great reputation. Her passion and integrity, he said, is quite evident.
“In my dealings with her I have found her to be spirited, warm and clearly a woman of principle,” said Wall. “The Corrections Department has a lot of dealings with the Public Defenders Office and there’s no doubt in my mind that the relationship will flourish while Mary is there.”
McElroy has served as Assistant Federal Public Defender in the Office of the Federal Defender for the United States District of Rhode Island since 2006, representing defendants in criminal matters in federal court, managed every aspect of the criminal process and conducted suppression hearings, sentencing hearings and felony jury trials, as well as other duties.
Prior, she served as Assistant Public Defender in the Office of the Rhode Island Public Defender. Also, she is currently the President-elect of the Rhode Island Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers, a member of the Rhode Island Bar Association, the Bar of the United States District Court, District of Rhode Island, and the Bar of the First Circuit Court of Appeals.
McElroy was a member of the Liberal Arts Honors Program at Providence College before attending Suffolk University School of Law, where she earned a J.D., cum laude, in 1992 and received the American Jurisprudence Award.
Further, she clerked for the Honorable Donald F. Shea of the Rhode Island Supreme Court and was an associate with the Providence firm Tate & Elias.