Tuesday, August 23, 2011

The "Public Defender" title

So, within the last year or so, the court in one of the counties where I work has put together a panel of volunteer attorneys that are willing to help out by covering low-level misdemeanor cases.  This is to help alleviate some of the less serious cases that are usually assigned to the public defenders.  The volunteer attorneys step in and take on some of these misdemeanors, meaning that the public defenders have fewer cases.  So, it's basically a panel of volunteer defense attorneys that handle cases for public-defender eligible clients to help out the PD's office. 

A few of these panel attorneys call themselves "volunteer public defenders."  This bothers me. It bothers me for a few reasons.  

The first is that it is not accurate.  We do have a couple volunteer public defenders at our office.  One of them actually carries a full time caseload (how insane is that, that we have enough cases to give a volunteer a full-time load?!).  These are people who have met with Chief and who have been vetted and they are people that Chief approves of working for our office.  While they are not paid, they still have access to all our supplies (folders, highlighters, mailing supplies, fax machine, etc) and they receive mail at our office and they are given the title Special Assistant Public Defender.  Which is actually cooler than my title of Assistant Public Defender, because Special Assistant Public Defender sounds way more awesome.  But, my point is that the 2 Special Assistant PDs that we have are people who have passed Chief's inspection/approval.  Not everyone does.  There have been potential volunteers that Chief didn't want working with us.  So, there are certain qualities that our volunteers need to have before truly being a volunteer public defender.  Simply being on a panel of willing defense attorneys doesn't make someone a public defender. 

The second is that defendants think that these defense attorneys are public defenders.  If a client isn't happy with the representation, they think they got bad representation from a public defender.  We always have to fight the perception that we're just "public pretenders" or that we just want to plead people out as fast as possible to get rid of the case.  Sometimes it's a false perception and sometimes people have had encounters with less-than-stellar public defenders. But, at least those people were actually public defenders.  If people are unhappy with their panel attorney and they think that person is a public defender, they may just chalk it up to "another one of those crappy public defenders," when in fact, we weren't handling the case.  Plus, people who are unhappy with me (or with another public defender) can call up Chief and state their complaints about their public defender.  If they call on one of the panel attorneys that they mistakenly think is a public defender, then there's really nothing that can be done by our office to address their complaint.

The third is that I'm a bit protective of my title as a public defender.  It's a title that I'm fiercely proud of and that I worked damn hard to get.  I knew I wanted to work in public defense before I even got out of law school.  I had to start out by interning and doing the bail calendars and prove that I was good enough as a student to take on more responsibility and set myself apart enough to warrant a recommendation from my intern-supervisor when I applied for this position.  I had to suffer through several months of long, sad unemployment while applying to positions, hoping against hope that somehow, some way, a public defender position would open up.  Then, I had to show in my interview that I had the fire in the belly to really do the work and to be worthy of joining the ranks of the public defender's office.  It seems unfair that someone can simply sign up for a volunteer defense panel and be called a public defender.  I worked hard to get this title and I'm very protective of it.  I felt an overwhelming sense of pride when I first started my job and I was able to see my name on the business card emblazoned with the seal of the State of Minnesota and to be able to sign documents as "PDgirl, Assistant Public Defender."  It's something I worked hard to obtain, so it makes me a bit envious that others are able to so quickly call themselves by the same title that I struggled to get. 

So, it makes me uncomfortable that some of the volunteer panel attorneys call themselves volunteer public defenders.  We're a motley crew, a rabblerouser crew, and an often-disliked crew, but we're a specially selected crew who have proven that they should get the title of public defender.  Not everyone can be a part of that crew.


  1. Anonymous8:16 PM

    For a bit, my office, which had a long hiring freeze, allowed some "defender fellows" to work for us. These were lawyers right out of law school with jobs at corporate firms who paid them half wages to work public interest jobs (at no cost to the public interest firms) - so they didn't have to pay them 140k to do no work at the firm. We called them scabs and had the same concerns.

  2. I would think you should be more worried about your job than your title. When people are willing to do for free what you are paid to do, one might question the need to keep paying you.

  3. TH-I might have more of a concern on that front but there are a few things that prevent me from being really concerned: 1. The free panel is basically the only one of its kind in the entire district that our offices are in, so it's not a widespread phenomenon. 2. There is a statutory requirement for a Board of Public Defense in MN and it would require a repeal of several laws to undo that. Not impossible, but a lot of work and probably not likely given the work required. 3. The panel only does misdemeanors and only some of the misdemeanors. Not all of them and certainly nothing beyond them. There's a lot more criminal work out there besides just a random sampling of misdemeanors. 4. The panel has quotas on how many cases each volunteer can be assigned each month. We public defenders enjoy no such thing as a quota on cases per month.

    If the circumstances changed at all, I'd probably be more concerned with my job than just the title. But as it is, it's not structured in such a way as to cause a concern on that front. The differences between their functions and our functions are too great.