Lawyers are coddled, writes Rick Casey of the Houston Chronicle, because they can’t be sued unless a client’s conviction is overturned. They’re coddled because they’re not monetarily liable for any errors they make that result in a conviction.
The aim of the legal system—civil and criminal—when someone is sentenced to more time through the fault of his lawyer should be to reduce that person’s sentence, rather than to compensate him for it. Getting lawyers to help fix their own mistakes should take priority over getting them to pay up.
A rule that encourages lawyers who make mistakes that harm their clients to come clean is preferable to one that encourages them to stonewall. Allowing clients to sue lawyers because their sentences are too long encourages lawyers to stonewall. As the law stands, even with no practical sanction, too many criminal defense lawyers treat an ineffective-assistance claim as a personal affront; better lawyers treat it as one last opportunity to help the client get free. Add a financial penalty, though, and it’ll be only the rare (or well-insured) lawyer who tries to help his client get his sentence reduced.
So the rule that a person who hasn’t been acquitted can’t sue his lawyer for negligence, even if that negligence resulted in a lengthier sentence, benefits not only the criminal defense bar but also—and maybe more so—the wrongfully sentenced.
Bennett mentions the problem I have with coddled lawyers, but only in passing. Greenfield places the blame squarely on our shoulders:
The mistake is a problem, but not the most significant problem. The one that undermines our integrity, and gives rise to Rick Casey’s complaint, is our inability to admit our error and correct it. Rather than concede error, lawyers try to bury it. […]
Rick Casey’s issue is real, and it’s getting worse rather than better. It was a problem before, and is more of a problem today. We are coddled, and we coddle ourselves. No amount of lip service paid to the defendant we failed, who sits in a prison cell while lawyers ingratiate themselves with others to get more twitter love, cares how many followers we have. This mutual admiration society with people we don’t even know is not a substitute for having the guts to own up to mistakes so that human beings don’t spend a second longer suffering for them than they should.
The answer isn’t disclosing whether we possess malpractice insurance. The answer is being a real criminal defense lawyer, warts and all, rather than just pretending to be one for the benefit of being part of the gang. Do the hard work that minimizes the potential for mistakes. But when a screw-up happens, as it invariably will, make it right.
They’re both right. We are coddled. But they don’t focus on the other “third prong”, as it were, of the coddling. It doesn’t just come from the fraternity of lawyers, but from on high. The coddling of lawyers is institutionalized in our jurisprudence. From the collective mistrust and offhand dismissal of allegations of ineffective assistance that pervades the criminal bar to the vast legal opinions that ridicule such claims to the institutional roadblocks to even getting judicial review of the mistakes made by lawyers in their handling of cases.
Ask anyone who’s tried an ineffective assistance of counsel case. The coddling begins at the beginning. First, the community of habeas corpus lawyers are treated as lepers; outsiders on the lunatic fringes of the criminal defense bar. Trial lawyers are dismissive and uncooperative. Clients seeking redress via The Great Writ are viewed as whiners, their lawyers are traitors. Files aren’t turned over, communication is non-existent and the defenses are raised to maximum alert.
Habeas petitioners then have to jump through unmanageable hoops to actually get the merits of their claims heard by courts. Procedural default, deliberate bypass, cause and prejudice are institutional tools designed to protect the “finality” of convictions and to punish the defendant for failing to do that which a lawyer should have done and didn’t: provide effective assistance and own up to mistakes. The jurisprudence places the onus on the pro-se defendant to recognize that a) his lawyer has messed up and b) that he has an avenue for redress.
And if this defendant is somehow able to surmount the gargantuan task of getting a court to consider the merits, he is faced with the three-headed monster: an uncooperative trial lawyer, a skeptical, cynical and weary judge and a veritable landfill of caselaw that is designed to thwart his every effort to ensure that “justice” is done in his case.
Judicial scrutiny of counsel’s performance must be highly deferential. It is all too tempting for a defendant to second-guess counsel’s assistance after conviction or adverse sentence, and it is all too easy for a court, examining counsel’s defense after it has proved unsuccessful, to conclude that a particular act or omission of counsel was unreasonable. Cf. Engle v. Isaac, 456 U. S. 107, 133-134 (1982). A fair assessment of attorney performance requires that every effort be made to eliminate the distorting effects of hindsight, to reconstruct the circumstances of counsel’s challenged conduct, and to evaluate the conduct from counsel’s perspective at the time. Because of the difficulties inherent in making the evaluation, a court must indulge a strong presumption that counsel’s conduct falls within the wide range of reasonable professional assistance; that is, the defendant must overcome the presumption that, under the circumstances, the challenged action “might be considered sound trial strategy.” See Michel v. Louisiana, supra, at 101. There are countless ways to provide effective assistance in any given case. Even the best criminal defense attorneys would not defend a particular client in the same way. See Goodpaster, 690 The Trial for Life: Effective Assistance of Counsel in Death Penalty Cases, 58 N. Y. U. L. Rev. 299, 343 (1983).
Strickland v. Washington, 466 U.S. 668 (1984). Courts are even given the power to deny the petitioner relief on either prong of Strickland:
Because the petitioner must satisfy both prongs of the Strickland test to prevail on a habeas corpus petition, this court may dispose of the petitioner’s claim if he fails to meet either prong. See Taft v. Commissioner of Correction, 47 Conn. App. 499, 504[…] (1998). We therefore need not decide whether the petitioner was denied the effective assistance of either his trial or habeas counsel because he has failed to demonstrate that he was prejudiced by his counsels’ assistance, whether or not it was deficient.
Denby v. Comm’r, 66 Conn. App. 809 (2001). Everywhere he turns, there are untameable lions guarding the exits. The collective ego of the profession prevents the one person whose life is altered by a brush with the justice system from every seeking and gaining redress. This is not surprising. Judges, after all, were also once lawyers. And the conventional wisdom, shared by most judges and prosecutors and defense lawyers, is that habeas is nothing but hogwash; another lame attempt by a clearly guilty man at escaping blame for his own evil and immoral actions.
If this is to change, if we are to truly care about the people that are processed like cogs on an assembly line, then the first step is to view ourselves not as entities distinct and separate from the people we represent, but as a manifestation of them. An incarnation, if you will.
If the conviction of the client is a conviction of the lawyer; if the days spent in jail by the client are days that the lawyer will have to also suffer, then and only then will the interests align. To be sure, there are few who already possess this view. The vast majority do not. To them, the attempt by the convicted client to shave a few years off his sentence, because of something the lawyer missed (or not), or the attempt to seek a new trial or to withdraw the plea of guilty are nothing more and nothing less than personal insults that impugn the reputation of the lawyer who goshdarnit did his best for the cretin that happened to walk through his door.
Us and them. While this divide exists, we cannot truly be counselor and representatives of our clients. We cannot change the system that views “them” differently. We cannot fulfill our duties and responsibilities to ensure that our clients’ rights are paid more than lip service.
This doesn’t happen overnight, there will be no sudden realization. It takes small steps. One lawyer here, one lawyer there who refuses to laugh along with the crowd at the ridicule of the defendant. Two lawyers who recognize the importance and value of The Great Writ, who have the courage to admit their errors even where they may be negligible. To realize that they have the comfort of going to their own homes at night, while the client will suffer in isolation. Whether this be by letting go of our egos as Scott writes or some sort of penalty as Mark considers and rejects or a change in the jurisprudence, it must be done for the sake of the client.
This is not an issue of “just desserts” or blame or punishment. This is about the ability to sleep at night, peacefully, knowing that you have done everything in your power to uphold the awesome responsibility of your profession: speak for another man when no one will.
We fight the institution. Why stop when the client is convicted?