As a former public defender, I’ve had the honor of standing up for the poor, the forgotten, and the damned. This is the very essence of being a zealous advocate.
My colleagues in the public defender’s office are some of the best trial attorneys I know. They are skilled, energetic, courageous, and ambitious. They are guardians of liberty and defend their clients vigorously. I would trust my freedom in the hands of any one of them.
At the same time, I’m not naive to the harsh realities of what it’s like to work in the public defender’s office. Juggling heavy caseloads — and by heavy caseloads, I mean more than one hundred cases at a time — presents many challenges.
As if fighting gallantly in the courtroom is not enough of a struggle, public defenders often times find themselves in the awkward position of having to fight yet another “battle” — this time with their clients to disabuse them of a common misconception: that they are “working with the prosecutor” to obtain a conviction. While this is more perception than reality, the fact remains that public defenders are funded by the government, the very same body that is prosecuting the defendant. Therefore, it’s not hard to imagine why an “indigent” defendant may have the impression, as misplaced as it might be, that he is surrounded by government on both sides. Recognizing this inherent conflict, the Supreme Court of the United States said that, “an indispensable element of the effective performance of [the defense bar’s] responsibilities is the ability to act independently of the Government and oppose it in adversary litigation.”[i]
All of these factors contribute to the stigma attached to being a public defender: an overworked plea bargainer who works with the prosecutor to obtain convictions at the client’s expense.
Even after earning their client’s trust, public defenders are often confronted with the following question, “Do you have time to fight my case?” That question has the uncanny way of “creeping up” on the attorney at the worst possible time: when he or she has three cases scheduled for trial next week and countless motions sprinkled in between. In short, the attorney may be nothing short of overwhelmed.
While the honest answer might be an unequivocal, “yes,” that would do nothing to instill confidence in a person whose very freedom lies in the hands of the attorney, and who is already doubtful about the quality of representation that he is going to get. Gerry Spence offers some keen insight into “The Plight of the Public Defender.”
[i] United States v. Cronic, 466 U.S. 648, 657 n. 17 (1984).