By Stephen Cooper
When a zealous public defender acting as the effective lawyer guaranteed by the Sixth Amendment was handcuffed in a Las Vegas courtroom in May for doing her job – pleading for “some leniency” for her indigent client – I wrote in the Las Vegas Review-Journal: “Being a public defender is tough. It’s grinding, under-compensated, unappreciated, physically and emotionally draining work. It takes fierce heart, thick skin, formidable stamina and a deep-seated desire to help the least fortunate among us.” (“Judge erred in having public defender handcuffed,” May 29, 2016).
What I didn’t observe given the context and what is hardly ever written about, discussed, or publicized, especially in the mainstream press and media: Public defenders have the best job in the legal profession.
Often portrayed and even disturbingly romanticized as serfs in the hierarchical caste-like valuation system that exists within the legal profession (and outside of it), in actuality, public defenders are, minus plush and puffy royal-red robes, golden crowns, and other baubles of majesty, the kings and queens of the law.
The large majority of public defenders valiantly wage battles in courtrooms across the country without enough resources, a police force, or a Law & Order cloak of goodwill that the general public and even The New Yorker, routinely grants prosecutors (see Jeffrey Toobin’s May 9 paean-like profile of United States Attorney for the Southern District of New York Preet Bharara, “The Showman: How U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara struck fear into Wall Street and Albany”).
Instead, when a case goes to trial or the large majority of the time, when there’s a negotiated plea, public defenders are called to battle like Davids: With well-worn slingshots they march across a rocky and hostile legal terrain towards an angry, often unfeeling Goliath; the outcome is usually far from biblical but somehow, summoning strength of character and a singular will to help a fellow soul, they act.
Henry Graham Greene (better known by his pseudonym, Graham Greene), who the New York Times dubbed the “Novelist of the Soul,” wrote: “People talk about the courage of condemned men walking to the place of execution: sometimes it needs as much courage to walk with any kind of bearing towards another person’s habitual misery.” Greene wasn’t referring to public defenders, but he could have been.
Good public defenders believe strongly what Sister Helen Prejean is credited with saying: “The dignity of the human person means that every human being is worth more than the worst thing they’ve ever done.”
Once I saw a bumper sticker that proclaimed, “If Jesus Christ were a lawyer, he’d be a public defender.” Maybe this pithy quotation goes too far like Toobin’s recent praise for Bharara, but it’s not without supporting proof in Christianity: Specifically John 8:7 in the King James version of the New Testament where Jesus says, when asked to judge a woman who has committed adultery and is therefore subject to stoning: “He that is without sin among you, let him cast the first stone at her.”
Public defenders know what Peter Cicchino, a brilliant law professor and former civil rights attorney (who taught me torts) said just prior to his untimely death at 39: “Our lives are among the only things that are completely ours. The kind of life we make is the most important work, the single most important project we will ever undertake. I suppose what I am trying to say is that in my own life as I have struggled with the question of what makes a good and happy human life, I have become ever more convinced that struggling to secure the conditions for a decent human life for others is a large part of the answer.”
The joy in public defense is found in the unshakeable belief that no matter a person’s alleged or actual crime, there is goodness inside each one of us, and that is always something worth fighting for.
Stephen Cooper worked as a D.C. public defender between 2003 and 2012 and as an assistant federal public defender in Alabama between 2012 and 2015. He has contributed to numerous magazines and newspapers in the United States and overseas. He writes full-time and lives in Woodland Hills, California. Follow him on Twitter @SteveCooperEsq