I don't want to be a legislator or a political appointee heading some bureaucracy. I don't want to be a city or county commissioner or a school board member. I don't even want to be a judge.
But it really chaps my hide to know (not think, not guess, but know) that even if I wanted to pursue any of those jobs, the job I've dedicated myself to thus far would disqualify me. Once a public defender, never an anything else in public life.
We, the public defender community, have long known that we were not going to be able to stay in this role if we someday want to be judges. Fortunately for me, I'm an advocate through and through, so that was never a problem for me. But I have colleagues who would have loved to be judges, and who would have been marvelous judges, who get overlooked at every opportunity. Part of that is the networking angle. We're not attending the right meetings (because we can't afford it and our offices can't afford to cover us), we're not meeting the right people, becoming known in the right circles. Of course, prosecutors get to be judges, but public defenders don't.
It's more than just the financial aspect, though, because even those who do much private criminal defense work don't get to the bench.
It really shouldn't come as a surprise, then, to learn that being a public defender is a bar to all kinds of other jobs. We saw earlier this year how representing a particularly disliked death row defendant, no matter how tangentially and no matter how meritorious the issue, disqualified an attorney from joining the Justice Department. And now we see that the ratio of former prosecutors and judges to former public defenders in Congress isn't a fair fight, either. The key comparison: right now, the House has 32 former prosecutors; since 2000, only 5 former public defenders. I'd be curious to see the resumes of those former PDs, too, because I'd guess they had work between being public defenders and running for office. Prosecutors can run for office; public defenders have to have transition jobs before they can run.
The Washington Post story has examples of attack ads that have run against those defenders who do try to run for public office. Defend one accused murderer or child rapist and that'll be the first thing your opponent points out about you. I know exactly which case of mine would be the first mentioned in the attack ad against me if I ever tried to run for office. I think I can guess which would be second. After that, though, there's a whole slew of stuff to choose from. They'd need to buy a full half hour ad to properly rake me across the coals for all the bad guys I've tried to help.
What is this about? Why is public defender work so disrespected? Except it goes beyond disrespect. Public defender work is downright despised. I can't even work up a whole lot of anger about it, anymore. The public defender hate just leaves me feeling so defeated.
We're good people. We're good lawyers. We're not idiots who just couldn't get better jobs. We actually do this work because we believe in it. It's work you should believe in, too, if you like the Bill of Rights. It doesn't just stop at the Second Amendment, you know. There are, in fact, 4 Amendments that focus on the rights of those suspected of and charged with crimes. One of them even guarantees every criminal defendant the right to the assistance of counsel. So you could even say we're true patriots, doing a job specifically outlined in the Constitution. You're welcome, by the way, for all that security in your person and effects against unlawful searches.
But instead of getting thanks, we get crapped on. We're laughed at, derisively called "public pretenders." (Yeah, that's really original and we've never, ever heard it before.) We're confronted at parties with outraged queries of how on earth we can sleep at night. We're vilified on comment forums. We're the red-headed step-children of state agencies, being asked to do more and more work with half the resources of other state lawyers (I'm looking at you, prosecutors). Then when we still manage to do good things with those limited resources, we're just more hated. And to top it all off, we're not allowed to have any role in public policy discussions because there's always someone there to point out that the work we do is somehow "incompatible with justice."
It's a sin and a shame that the perspectives that we have aren't valued, that our experiences aren't represented in state houses or Congress, that we aren't desired contributors to policy discussions. We would actually have something worthwhile to contribute, if you'd all stop insulting us and hating us long enough to listen.
But you won't and I'm too tired to fight. So, go on. Keep hating and disrespecting me, my colleagues, and the work that we do. Just know, though, that if any of you anti-public defender folks ever get arrested for DUI or accused of rape or murder, one of us will be there to stand beside you in court, no matter what sort of mud and disrespect you've flung at us. We don't pick and choose who is worthy of a defense. We stand on the principle that everyone has Constitutional rights that should be respected. Even you jerks who wouldn't vote for one of us because of our principles. We're just that damn principled.