by Michele Nielsen ’99
Phyllis Morris ’80 and Chris Gardner ’92 work to keep the scales of justice in balance in San Bernardino County. Morris is the chief public defender and Gardner is assistant public defender. 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.
Morris graduated from Redlands with a degree in psychology, a minor in economics and a reputation as an outstanding scholar. Remembering her dedication, a political science professor contacted her after graduation to let her know of a program at UC Davis School of Law. Morris enrolled and obtained her JD from UCD in 1983, later earning a master’s degree in public administration. She was appointed to her current role in 2012, becoming the sixth chief public defender and the first African-American woman to hold the position in the history of the office.
Today, as chief of the largest law firm in the county, Morris oversees more than 200 employees and approximately 50,000 cases per year. Her holistic approach includes connecting clients and families with resources and developing award-winning prevention programs like MAP—Make Attendance a Priority—which partners social workers with the juvenile courts, schools and families to reduce truancy, a factor in juvenile crime.
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. On campus, professors including Art Svenson and Kathie Jeni made a lasting impression on him. A pivotal moment for Gardner occurred during a semester he spent working as an intern in the public defender’s office in Washington D.C. He found the system unfair, the office under-resourced and the balance of justice far off, and that’s when he knew he would dedicate his career to keeping things in balance.