The Best Generation
How did we get to this point? The story is a familiar one to public defenders in America. While the Sixth Amendment was a vital part of our Bill of Rights, that amendment did not apply to the states for almost two centuries and was not self-executing. By the 1930’s, when the Scottsboro Boys were arrested in Alabama and tried weeks afterwards for capital crimes, the nation’s attention began to focus on what the Sixth Amendment actually meant in real life. One of the cases coming out of that travesty of justice was that poor persons charged with capital crimes had a right to a publicly paid defense lawyer. But that was the extent of the decision, some 150 years after the Bill of Rights was made a part of the Constitution. The following decade, in Betts v. Brady, the Court held once again that there was no constitutional right to a publicly paid lawyer when charged with a felony. That wouldn’t take place until the Gideon decision in 1963. Gideon changed everything. But it too was not self-executing. Who knew what Gideon meant?
There was no roadmap. Each state, city, county looked at Gideon and had to decide what to do about it. Some had already decided that a public defender office was mandatory, places like Los Angeles, Memphis, San Francisco, New York. But in many places across the country, places like rural Kentucky, lawyers were simply required to provide their services free of charge. Meanwhile, persons were being arrested, charged, convicted, and incarcerated, often with lawyers unpaid, unprepared, untrained providing the representation. Misdemeanants for the most part went unrepresented. Jurisdictions were on their own. Gradually, that began to change. Jurisdictions began to create public defender systems at the state level, or they began to require cities and counties to create and fund their own systems. The patchwork that is public defense began to take shape.
There were heroes along the way. But this brief story about the right to counsel is not what this blog is about. I’ve been thinking about the heroes along the way, the leaders who rose up to drive public defense reform. Those leaders had visions of a better way, and wrote statutes, created structures, advocated for resources, created training units, and communicated with one another on best practices. Reform swept the country, driven by these leaders as well as other advocacy organizations and the client communities. Lawsuits were often needed to dislodge years of disinterest or refusal to breathe life into the right to counsel.
Those heroes are retiring. It has now been 56 years since Gideon. Much has happened during the past 56 years, including the retirements of many of the heroes of those first few decades. Some of them have left behind their thinking, their stories, but many have not. NAPD is going to do what it can to correct that.
Announcing “Closing Arguments: Reflections from the First Generation of Public Defense Leaders”. Starting on May 17th at 1:00 p.m., NAPD will feature every two months or so one of these public defense heroes. We begin with Fred Friedman, a Chicago native, who started as a public defender in Minnesota in 1972, just 9 years post-Gideon. Fred was a full and part-time public defender from 1973 until 1986, at which point he became the Chief Public Defender of Minnesota’s Sixth District. Fred has also been a professor at the University of Minnesota, Duluth where he holds a joint appointment in the Department of Sociology and the School of Medicine. By the time of his retirement in 2014, he had served as Minnesota’s longest serving chief defender in history. Fred is the Chair of the NAPD Strike Force and in that capacity has assisted numerous public defenders in a jam. Fred is well known for mentoring generations of public defenders, presenting on trial practice and leadership, including teaching at trial schools at the National Public Defender Trial School at the University of Dayton as well as trial schools in North Carolina, Pennsylvania, and Minnesota. Fred also co-hosts a radio show on Public Radio throughout Northern Minnesota alternately entitled “Fool Fred” or “The Sports Page”. Ask Fred sometime about the batting average of your favorite player.
We will follow Fred with Bob Boruchowitz, former Chief Defender in Seattle, Doug Wilson, former Colorado Public Defender, Phyllis Subin, former Chief Defender in New Mexico, and Ed Monahan, former Kentucky Public Advocate, all before the end of the year. These will all be webinars stored on MyGideon and available to current and future public defender leaders.
I hope you will sign up to watch and talk with Fred on this first “Closing Argument.” You can register on the NAPD website here: https://www.publicdefenders.us/calendar_list.asp.