We Each Have Our Roles to Play
I had been an appellate lawyer and a trial supervisor and a lawyer trying death penalty cases during my first six years as a Kentucky public defender. In 1983, I moved 55 miles away from Frankfort, and was asked to open a trial office in Madison County. One of my first acts was to ask the Chief Circuit Judge, Judge James Chenault to meet with me to talk about the changes that were coming to the indigent defense system in the county. Judge Chenault was an older judge who had been embattled previously with then Public Advocate Jack Farley. He liked the good old days when young lawyers represented indigents pro bono. Judge Chenault had created an assigned counsel system in Madison County. Chenault had also appointed the “administrator” of the public defender system, who was also his court administrator. Under that system, local lawyers agreed to take assignments from the court administrator. They were poorly paid and unsupervised. And they had been clearly beholden to the judge. By the time I moved to Richmond, the local lawyers had let the Public Advocate know that they were no longer willing to work for such paltry pay. A full-time office was on the way.
Judge Chenault refused to meet with me. Repeatedly. I could never get past his administrative assistant. So we saw one another only in court, and only in the context of trying cases and arguing motions. And it got ugly. At one point, when I took a writ to the Kentucky Court of Appeals, Judge Chenault asked the Court to sanction me under Rule 11 for the filing of a “frivolous” writ. Ed Monahan, now Public Advocate, represented me. Not only did I not get sanctioned, but in a companion case the Kentucky Supreme Court ultimately ruled in our favor on the merits of the writ. That didn’t stop Judge Chenault. He once talked on the video (we had video transcripts) to the Court of Appeals saying that I was being unethical in a case. Another time he prohibited me from ever citing the Constitution again, indicating that he was considering placing buttons at the defense table with buttons for the 4th, 5th, 6th, 8th, and 14th Amendments. I was to push the buttons rather than speaking about the amendments.
I thought of Judge Chenault recently when I was contacted about the situation in Jackson, Mississippi. It appears that a local judge, Judge Jeff Weill, took umbrage with the zealous (and successful) practice of a Hinds County public defender, Alison Kelly. He first asked the PD Chief, Michele Purvis Harris, to transfer her out of his courtroom. Out of courtesy to the judge, Ms. Harris did so. However, due to turnover, Ms. Harris saw fit to place the experienced Ms. Kelly back in the judge’s courtroom. This time the judge demanded that she be removed, and when this was not done, he removed Ms. Kelly from all of her cases, and began to assign new cases to private counsel.
Ms. Harris has stood strong, supporting her lawyer, and also supporting her right as a chief to manage her office as she saw fit. She has upheld the independence of the indigent defense function in Jackson, Mississippi. She has supported a writ to the Mississippi Supreme Court challenging the practices of the judge. And she is reaching out for support, including to NAPD.
NAPD is privileged to support the Hinds County Public Defender’s Office, its Chief Defender, Michele Purvis Harris, and one of its fine public defenders, Alison Kelly. We have penned a letter to the editor to two local papers, one of which has already been published. We have also written a longer and more substantive letter that has been sent out to the local judiciary and county officials. It is attached to this article. Our Amicus Committee is working on an amicus brief to the Mississippi Supreme Court to further support the independence of the public defender system.
We all have our roles to play. We need a neutral judiciary. We need a vigorous and ethical prosecutorial function. And we need an independent, well-funded, and client-centered public defense function. When that system breaks down at any point, justice is denied.