True Justice Demands that We Must Stand Up and Be Heard
No other job as a lawyer demands the amount of sacrifice and dedication required to serve as a Public Defender. We give a voice to people who many times society has forgotten or ignored. We provide each person with a high level of representation, not because of what they can do for us, but rather because we are driven and singularly dedicated to serving the best interests of each person we represent. As Public Defenders, we give life to the Constitution. We fight for the only person or entity in the courtroom, provided protection by the Constitution in the context of a criminal case. We are Constitutional Defenders. However, in spite of our extraordinary efforts and the vital role we play, we are consistently treated with far less respect and provided less support, than any other player in the criminal justice system.
Public Defenders are consistently paid less and receive less support than their counterparts in the Judiciary, the prosecutor's office, and law enforcement. For years, I accepted this mistreatment as just the way it is. A feeling of defeat, believing there was little to nothing I could do to change the system or the way we are mistreated. There may not be much I can do to effect change, but thanks to the influence and inspiration provided me by the amazing people of Gideon’s Promise, I will no longer sit silently by in the face of these injustices. I have never worked in any professional capacity that is fulfilling and inspiring as the work we do. Since I become affiliated with Gideon’s Promise, the pride I feel in serving as a Public Defender has risen to an unparalleled level. The renewed spirit that has been a byproduct of this feeling of pride, has also given me the drive to not sit quietly by when faced with the unequal and unjust way we as Public Defenders are treated. As leaders in this movement, it is not only important that we constantly fight for our voices to be heard, it is our moral duty.
Without Public Defenders who receive equal treatment and are provided the same resources as the prosecution, the criminal justice system becomes a system of injustice. As Clarence Darrow said, any Government which does not provide those who defend people accused of crime with the same level of support as those who prosecute, does not truly care about justice. Governments pay lip service to their support for Public Defenders and the rights of the indigent. Rarely do their actions mirror their words. When budgets need to be balanced it is not done by making cuts in the budgets of prosecutors or law enforcement. Instead, it is almost always done on the backs of public defense. William Kunstler warned us not to be a part of the system of injustice. When we as Public Defenders and indigent defense providers refuse to fight for equal treatment, we do just that. If instead of fighting for equal treatment, we choose to bite our tongues and just try to make due with inferior resources and staffing, we become fully contributing cogs in that system of injustice. Each and every person we represent deserves the highest level of defense. Each and every person we represent deserves nothing less. Public Defenders already do amazing work with what little they are provided. We can provide an even higher level of defense, if we are given sufficient time, support, and resources.
When we try to discuss this unequal and unfair treatment, we are told to stop making so much noise. We are repeatedly reminded, "No one was ever re–elected trying to help criminals"—sometimes even from attorneys in our own profession. When Public Defenders argue about the unfairness of our unequal pay, we are lectured that "You did not become a public defender to get rich". It is true the people working as Public Defenders did not follow this path with the belief it would lead to a lucrative career and a life of luxury. We understand the sacrifices we are making by choosing this profession. We know we will be overworked and underpaid. While we voluntarily make these sacrifices on behalf of the people for whom we fight every day, we did not take an oath of poverty. Our sacrifices, our dedication, our passion, our commitment should not be ignored.
But it is not only in funding that Public Defenders are regularly slighted. We are mocked in the media as disorganized and ill–prepared. Private criminal defense lawyers are portrayed as eloquent orators, talented litigators, and relentless in the pursuit of justice. One need not think much further than My Cousin Vinny to picture the usual portrayal of Public Defenders. The stammering, stuttering, spitting fool who couldn't even complete his opening statement, much less successfully defend his client. Rarely, if ever, do Public Defenders get the type of true recognition that has occurred in Raising the Bar and Gideon's Army. We must not continue to sit silently by and allow this disrespect to continue.
We are even slighted by those who see our stellar work every day. Recently a panel of criminal lawyers was held which was billed as featuring the "Best lawyers” in the profession. These panelists were given the opportunity to discuss their practices and professions to a large and diverse group of law school students, on the precipice of starting their legal careers. The panel was comprised of a US Attorney and four private defense lawyers. No member of any Public Defender’s office was included on the panel. In fact, none was even invited. When I confronted the planners about this slight, they responded with the standard and cliché phrase "We support public defenders and the work you do". Their actions demonstrated the exact opposite.
Too often in the battle for funding, resources, and respect, Public Defenders are left to pick at the scraps left on the table after the police, prosecution, and private bar have feasted. This separate and unequal treatment is not sufficient. As leaders in the Public Defense community, we must speak up and be heard. We must demand equal and fair treatment for ourselves and the people for whom we fight tirelessly every day. Leadership demands that we not back down when Governments say “No”, claiming there is not enough money in the budget. It always amazes me at how quickly the funds in these "cash strapped" budgets are found when it means increased funding for the police or prosecution, or some political donor looking for a lucrative contract from the very same governmental body.
It is important that we fight to ensure that those who choose this profession are treated with respect and put in positions to succeed. Public Defenders should be provided the resources and support to do their jobs effectively and be able to continue to work in this profession for the long term, without having to sacrifice their personal and professional well–being. As leaders in this movement, we must fight; we must be heard; and when the forces standing in our way tell us to shut up in sit down, we must refuse and scream even louder.