I could quote, as I have done before, Ammianus Marcellinus and his tale of Delphidius and Caesar. I could quote Martin Luther King, Jr., and his admonition that injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. I could even quote my namesake, but I’ve already written about him once today. Instead, I quote Jonathan Rapping, former training director of Public Defender Services and current something of Gideon’s Promise, a program dedicated to training and resurrecting crumbling public defender offices in the South.
Expectations for what poor people deserve have fallen so low that people in the system have come to accept these low standards. They have lost sight of justice and the role they are supposed to play in promoting it.
While limiting caseloads is certainly one part of the solution, if we expect to change America’s public defense system, we must change its culture. We must teach public defenders to resist the low expectations of a broken system. And we must prepare the next generation of public defenders to improve those systems.
Perhaps being fortunate to practice in a public defender system that has most everything one could ask for* has blinded me to the obvious realities of practicing in other jurisdictions where we are barely funded at all.
But the charge that it is the dedication of the public defenders that needs examining that gives me pause. Is it, like I want to think, that those public defenders who have accepted the low expectations of the broken system are few and far between, or is it like Rapping teaches it: an infestation that has taken root in a discordant system in states where there is little or no attention paid to indigent defense?
The latter, while probably true, seems absurd to me because of this: I believe this is a job one does not come lightly to, nor is it one that someone can do without having once had a strong sense of pride and almost feverish belief in.
You’d have to have that sort of blind idealism, because otherwise, this job kills you. You don’t understand; I’m not exaggerating. This job – criminal defense – sucks the life out of you. It makes you age 3 years for every one in natural time. It disturbs your sleep; it distorts your sense of humor, it takes every ounce of sensitivity you have and bludgeons it with a very large, blunt hammer. You make jokes that would get you instantly fired in any other workplace, it instills a paralyzing fear of being alone with children and it makes you take to the bottle.
It takes you into the very dark recess of the worst of humanity and then shoves you back into the normal parts every evening and expects you to recover fully in time for tomorrow’s horror show. You interact with the mentally disabled, the mentally ill, the arrogant, the foolish, the entitled, the power-hungry and the power-mad. You stand next to the pain of a thousand losses and the ghosts of memories that never will be. The stench of ruined lives permeates your clothes and your skin and your very soul. There is always a reek of futility to all that you do. A beggar has more luck than a public defender. Saddled with the Herculean task of giving a voice to those that no one cares to listen to, you are stuck in between the disdain of your clients and the irrelevance of your spot in the courtroom.
It is a job that makes you lose faith, too. Lose faith in humanity; lose faith in justice; lose faith that good prevails over bad; in the order of things; it makes you lose faith in God and brings you one step closer to existentialism and an almost gleeful belief in the absurdity of life.
It makes you a cynic, perhaps too much of one. It makes you mean, it makes you grumpy, it makes your suits not fit and the time between each haircut get longer and longer.
And yet we put up with it all. And the reward for putting up with turning into a less likeable version of yourself must be tremendous. It is.
Despite that overhanging gloom and that inescapable feeling that you’re one denied bond motion away from really losing it and saying things that can never be taken back, I wouldn’t practice any other kind of law. Being a prosecutor? Too easy. Being a judge? Too boring. Being a public defender? Just right.
Does that make me crazy? Quite possibly. But I’ve always been a bit of a dreamer and a fool and this job allows me to let both those qualities flourish.
What other job allows you to contribute to society, directly, every day? What other job lets you touch so many lives – some repeatedly – and always in a way that tries to better those lives? What other job allows you to play David and gives you the opportunity to slingshot Goliath? In what other job lets you stand between the immense power and the purported moral authority of a governmental regime and the puny, individual, inconsequential freedom of one and say “not today; not on my watch”.
Is it grandiose? But of course. And it takes grandiose acts and grandiose thoughts to protect a document as grandiose as the Constitution of the United States of America.
This is not a job; this is not just a paycheck. This is a way of life. This is a calling. Okay. I can’t resist. Does this:
Numerius, the governor of Narbonensis, was on trial before the Emperor, and, contrary to the usage in criminal cases, the trial was public. Numerius contented himself with denying his guilt, and there was not sufficient proof against him. His adversary, Delphidius, “a passionate man,” seeing that the failure of the accusation was inevitable, could not restrain himself, and exclaimed, “Oh, illustrious Cæsar! if it is sufficient to deny, what hereafter will become of the guilty?” to which Julian replied, “If it suffices to accuse, what will become of the innocent?” Rerum Gestarum, L. XVIII, c. 1.
set your heart racing? If it doesn’t, why are you still a public defender?
(*I say ‘most everything’ because I have yet to be denied a request for an expense that is not frivolous, but I recognize – as we all must – that our funding, while generous, is nowhere near adequate to ensure that each client is effectively represented, especially in our larger lower courts.)