Kennedy’s speech influenced Daniels to become public defender
By St. Clair Murraine
Outlook staff writer
When Nancy Daniels heard former president John F. Kennedy’s 1961 inaugural speech, it struck a chord.
Specifically, the now famous words, “Ask not what your country can do for you; ask what you can do for your country.”
Daniels figured helping people in need by fighting for their civil and legal rights was the way she could do something for her country.
“There was a whole generation of us who heard that (speech) and turned to public service when the time came for us,” Daniels said.
When her time came years later, Daniels chose the legal system to make her impact. She spent 32 years in the public defender office, the last 26 serving as the first woman in Florida to be elected to the position.
During her tenure, Daniels redefined the public defender’s office, developing a reputation for being an empathetic lawyer. She was also known for being tenacious but never losing her respect for the court.
“When she walked into the court, people wanted to believe her,” said Andy Thomas, who replaced Daniels following her retirement last December.
Her work has earned her several awards. On Sept. 7, she will receive another as one of seven people who will be honored. The ceremony will take place during the Bethel Empowerment Community Celebration Banquet, hosted by Bethel Missionary Baptist Church at the Civic Center.
Daniels is known for being a champion for defendants who couldn’t afford the cost of a private lawyer. One of her biggest successes was to get funding for a juveniles diversion program. She also spent countless hours fighting for changes to the state’s punitive laws, especially the ones on mandatory sentencing.
Whether in the senate or the court, Daniels never attempted to skirt the rules. Her mission was always to get a fair trial for her clients.
“In the public defender’s world, a whole lot of what you do is negotiate for people,” she said. “You don’t go in the court and fight the trial battle on every single case.
“A lot of times you’re dealing with people who know they did something wrong and they accept responsibility and they want you to get them the best possible negotiation for it. You’re not trying to justify what they may have done but you’re trying to help them navigate the system and get through it the best way they can.”
After graduating from Florida State University’s College of Law, she returned for a stint as clinical director, working under her mentor Sandy D’Alamberte.
Daniels grew up in Miami and spent a few years in Jacksonville before coming to Tallahassee. She spent her first few years after being elected to the public defender’s office debunking stereotypes about women in her role.
“There was some resistance to having a women in a responsible position so I constantly had to work harder and try to dispel stereotypes,” she said.
None of that ever stopped her from doing her best work, though.
“When you walk into the court for a trial, it is an adversarial proceeding and you’re in a different mode on that day,” she said. “You are there to fight for your client, bring every possible argument and constitutional principle to the courtroom. It is definitely a professional challenge; every trial.”
Daniels spends some of her time in retirement as a volunteer with Ready4Work, a reentry program aimed at curbing recidivism. When she isn’t passing on her legal expertise, she plays in a local tennis league, reading or enjoying the outdoors hiking.
Her legacy as a legal mind will long be remembered, said Thomas, adding that she has made an indelible impression on him.
“What she left for me,” he said, “was being confident, patient and working with people; giving them an opportunity to succeed.”