"You have the right to an attorney and if you cannot afford one, the court will appoint one for you." These words are heard daily by people at arraignments on criminal charges across Oregon. The attorney appointed to represent the citizen most likely will be a public defender.
Defending the public is a privilege and an honor. However, the perception of the public is not congruent with this truth. Public defenders have an undeserved reputation as second-rate lawyers who could not get a "real" job or "settled" for low wages as a public defender. Unfortunately, people who receive the services of the public defenders have a similar misconception. Clients will often state that they want a "real lawyer," or complain that only people with significant resources have a chance at justice. These perceptions are not true and fail to appreciate the professionalism that Oregon public defenders bring to the courtroom every day.
I recently made the transition to private practice in Woodburn after over a decade in indigent criminal defense at the trial and appellate level. Not everyone can be a public defender. In that sense, it is a privilege. The competition for positions in the public defender office is great. The attorneys who choose to work as public defenders are some of the best educated, most dedicated and creative lawyers in practice. The attorneys usually come from the finest law schools in Oregon and nationally.
Almost all of them could earn more in private practice. But the majority of them choose to defend the public out of a deep commitment to protecting the rights of their clients and by extension, the people of Oregon. What public defenders do daily is provide quality representation to their clients, and they do it very well. The ability to be in court nearly every day equates to defending more cases in a year than most lawyers try in a lifetime. With such expertise, the attorneys apply discerning eyes to the issues. Most cases settle, but when a case is set for trial or oral argument in the appellate courts, the attorney is not concerned about the economics of that decision and instead focuses on the law.
The public defender is symbolic of a great virtue of our state and country. It would be politically easy to treat indigent citizens accused of crime in a manner that would degrade the ideal of justice. But the appointment of a public defender ensures that the government does not overcharge or overpunish a guilty person. Consistent with that charge, the highest public defender calling is to ensure that innocent people are not wrongly convicted.
It is a truism that criminal defense lawyers are defenders of the Constitution. They are the last line of defense between the individual and the power of the government. Without public defenders tirelessly challenging the power of the government to perform searches of private property or to arrest and charge citizens, no one would be safe from overzealous government intrusion into our privacy or the erroneous loss of liberty.
Every criminal defense attorney is asked how you can defend someone that you know is guilty. The public defender knows that a client’s guilt or innocence is for the judge or jury to decide. The defender must advocate the client’s case to the fullest extent possible under the rules of ethics and the law. It cannot be any other way.
With the passing of mandatory minimum sentencing schemes, the stakes have never been higher. Thus, the public defender’s job is not for the lazy or uncommitted. But what is that quality that makes for an effective vindicator of rights? The indispensable quality of a good public defender is a profound commitment to professionalism. A consequence of professionalism is a work product that has a core quality grounded in the universal truth of fairness. A professional analysis for a client results in a legal theory that is easy to defend against a questioning opponent, skeptical court, or a jury looking to do justice. In contrast, advocating theories based on a misguided belief of what a "zealous" advocate would do may leave one grasping for answers to simple questions. A calm presentation based on the facts or law is ultimately more persuasive than any rant a "true believer" can ever produce.
The prosecution routinely claims the mantle of representing the state. Analogously, the public defenders defend the people, i.e., the individual citizens of Oregon. Consistent with that duty, by proudly claiming the mantle of the defender of the public, the attorneys who provide services to the indigent keep the balance between the government and its citizens intact.
It was truly a privilege to defend Oregonians in our courts. Perhaps what is more important, it was an honor to assist them in seeking justice in the Oregon courts.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Walter J. Ledesma is an attorney in Woodburn.
© 2006 Walter J. Ledesma