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August 1, 2019

New deputy public defender likes to serve “underdog”

Photo/Don Del Rosso
Ryan D. Ruzic started as a public defender seven years ago in Hampton.
I would much rather be trying to keep someone free than trying to put someone in a cage.
— Deputy Public Defender Ryan D. Ruzic
Ryan David Ruzic
• Age: 34

• Work: Deputy public defender, Warrenton office, July 10-present; assistant and senior assistant public defender, Leesburg office, 2014-19; public defender, City of Hampton, 2012-14.

• Salary: $89,600

• Home: Fair Oaks, Fairfax County

• Education: Law degree, College of William & Mary, 2011; bachelor’s degree, political science and English literature, University of Illinois, 2007; Tuscola (Ill.) Community High School, 2003

• Family: Parents, David Ruzic and LeAnn Ornsby; brother, Brandon, 32.

• Hobbies: Hiking
By .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)
Staff Journalist
The Illinois native knew he wanted a public service career.

As a boy, Ryan D. Ruzic relished a good debate, taking a position and hammering it home.

Impressed with the youngster’s exuberance and ability to make a convincing case, family members and friends told him he should become an attorney.

His high school classmates also voted him “most argumentative,” recalled Mr. Ruzic, the new Warrenton-based deputy public defender of the 20th Judicial District.

The professional path for him appeared increasingly obvious.

“The law seemed like something I was suited to, specifically as an advocate,” Mr. Ruzic explained.

The 20th Judicial District comprises Fauquier, Rappahannock and Loudoun counties. Funded by the state, Virginia’s 25 public defender offices represent only those charged with criminal offenses who cannot afford to hire lawyers.

Mr. Ruzic oversees a nine-person staff, including four attorneys, and a fiscal 2020 budget of about $700,000. The office also has an investigator, mitigation specialist who among other things helps coordinate treatment plans for defendants and two administrative people.

The Warrenton office’s attorneys represent defendants in Fauquier and Rappahannock. With 10 lawyers, the Leesburg office handles all Loudoun cases.

The Warrenton lawyers represent defendants in Fauquier’s circuit, general district and juvenile and domestic relations district courts.

The office’s combined workload totals 751 cases, averaging 150 cases per lawyer, Mr. Ruzic said. But, until one of the attorneys on maternity leave returns in a few months, the other four will pick up her cases, the deputy public defender said.

Besides his supervisory duties, Mr. Ruzic will continue to handle 125 to 150 cases at a time.

Because of the hefty workload, none of the lawyers specializes, said Mr. Ruzic, 34. Nor, for that reason, does he “individually” assign them cases.

Instead, “We try to devise a calendar that kind of divides up most types of cases in a relatively even way, based on experience.”

The workload and relatively low salaries contribute to the steady departure of public defenders, Mr. Ruzic explained in an interview at his 16 Horner St. office.

So far this year, three lawyers — including Deputy Public Defender Kevin J. Gerrity — have left the Warrenton office.

“New” attorneys at the Warrenton office get paid $59,523 — “dramatically lower than the average salary for a lawyer,” Mr. Ruzic said.

As a College of William and Mary law student, Mr. Ruzic interned at several commonwealth’s attorney offices and the work impressed him.

For a time, the law enforcement side of the legal system appealed to him.

“Like most young law students, being a prosecutor seemed cool to me,” said Mr. Ruzic, smiling. “You know . . . you can get a badge.”

And, while prosecutors generally draw bigger salaries and have access to a lot more resources, he learned that representing the disadvantage fulfilled him, professionally and personally.

“I really wanted to have a job that had a clear difference in people’s lives,” Mr. Ruzic said. “I wanted my job and life to matter.

“I would much rather be trying to keep someone free than trying to put someone in a cage.”

Public Defender Lori O’Donnell supervises the Leesburg and Warrenton staffs.

In 2014, Ms. O’Donnell hired Mr. Ruzic and last month promoted him to deputy.

“Ryan has a passion for the work,” Ms. O’Donnell said. “It came through when you spoke with him. We don’t win a lot. It takes a special kind of person who wants to help the underdog, and you saw that in Ryan.”

In the Leesburg office, Mr. Ruzic for three years managed the office’s internship program and started a trainee program for new lawyers.

A leader, “he brings the office together,” Ms. O’Donnell said of her deputy. “He’s just someone you like to talk to — to go to lunch with.”

Loudoun County Assistant Commonwealth’s Attorney Eric Shamis and Mr. Ruzic have squared off in court over numerous misdemeanor and felony charges.

“I’d call him aggressive, but not in a bad way,” said Mr. Shamis, 36. “He does not roll over. He’s got a very heavy caseload. But, when it comes down to appearing in front of the judge and defending his clients, he always seems to know the law.”

Always civil, Mr. Ruzic also brings “passion” and a natural gift for public speaking to the job, the prosecutor said.

“I always enjoy going up against attorneys who are very skilled and also pleasant to deal with, and he fits that mold.”

Over the years, Mr. Ruzic has turned down offers to practice with firms and the higher pay that went with them.

While he admires many private-sector lawyers, “For me, the money’s not the most important thing,” the public defender said. “I’d rather have a job I really love, than get out of student debt, which I have a ton of.”

His law school loans total about $120,000, he said. But a portion of the debt would be erased under a federal government loan forgiveness program for people who serve at least 10 years in public service jobs, Mr. Ruzic said.

“That’s the goal,” he said of the program. “It’s only for qualifying loans, which not all of mine are.” Mr. Ruzic has about eight years about eight years with the state system.

He eventually would like to head a public defender’s office and perhaps down the road seek a judgeship.

“I think it’s a rare young attorney who doesn’t hear a judge rule against them and think, ‘We’ll see, when I’m a judge,” said Mr. Ruzic, laughing.

But, true to his first calling, he quickly added: “The real downside to being a judge is that you’re no longer an advocate. So, as satisfying as it would be to make the final decision sometimes, I really like the role of fighting for a specific person.”

Contact Don Del Rosso at or 540-270-0300.
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