Had Any Interesting Cases Lately?
In fact, I have plenty of interesting cases, yet every time I’m asked about “interesting cases,” I freeze. Will the person who asked find a mentally ill drug addict as sympathetic as I do? Can I even talk about mental health diagnoses without violating my client’s right to privacy? Will the things that strike a public defender as hilarious offend someone else? Do I have the perfect “interesting case” to demonstrate to someone how the criminal justice system is designed to keep the poor poor? The death of a rock and roll legend and a recent Second Circuit case have convinced me I should be more willing to answer that dreaded question.
Since Lou Reed’s passing, I’ve been listening to a lot of his music. A carefully crafted mix tape first introduced me to The Velvet Underground. By an unpredictable turn of events, 20 years and 200 miles later, the person who made that mixtape is now a prosecutor in the city where I work. We had lost touch somewhere in the years between the Nirvana and Arcade Fire, and we were both surprised to see each other in court last year.
Currently, I’m ignoring a Facebook friend request from that old high school friend. Even though we were friends years ago, I refuse to break my policy of not friending prosecutors on Facebook for him. I don’t want my adversaries to take solace in the moments of insecurity I share with friends, nor do I want to risk being labeled a “true believer” and taken less seriously because I post links to articles expressing outrage over the war on drugs, prosecutorial misconduct, and police brutality.
Listening to “I’m Waiting for the Man” got me thinking about that pending FB friend request. Lou Reed fearlessly lays it all out there in that song. While The Beatles were catching heat for oblique references to LSD in “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds,” Lou Reed step by step describes visiting his heroin dealer. If Lou can be so frank about his personal deamons, why am I being so reserved about my professional thoughts?
There’s been another figure who’s made the news recently for direct, honest self-expression. The Second Circuit removed, SDNY Judge Shira Scheindlin from a high profile lawsuit against the NYPD for their stop and frisk policies in part because of her willingness to speak with the media about the case. The public’s demand to hear stories about our work often collides with our duty to respect the privacy of our clients. Recent reality TV shows filmed about public defenders in Brooklyn, as well as about the District Attorney’s office, not to mention the Law & Order franchise, demonstrate people’s thirst for real life stories of the criminal justice system. Nonetheless, attorney client privilege obliges us to hold tight to personal information that our clients reveal to us.
I’m torn. I am contributing to a blog, yet unwilling to share personal Facebook updates with an old friend who happens to be an Assistant District Attorney. I’m not an artist for whom public expression is cathartic and necessary. Besides, ethical obligations constrain my expression as well as concerns over how I’m perceived in court. Unlike a judge, however, I have no ethical obligation to appear neutral. By choosing this career I have already taken a public stance on the criminal justice system. I have stories to tell and the frankness of Judge Scheindlin and Lou Reed inspire me to tell them. Next time someone asks me if I have any interesting cases, I resolve not to dodge the question, but to use it as an opportunity to show how important our work is, while still maintaining respect for the privacy of my clients.