Imagine (In Honor of Trent Hall)
Imagine entering a profession notorious for its soul-sucking nature. You maybe didn’t really understand what that would mean at the start, but it doesn’t take long to realize.
I’m writing about the Public Defenders of this nation. Those who know about this work will agree: it is a terribly intense and emotionally demanding area of the law. The people who have the grit to make it through the high-bar achievement of law school, and who then step past the golden ticket of the (very) high wages of (many) legal positions to be employed at public expense to represent defendants who are unable to afford legal assistance in criminal proceedings: these are our public defenders.
There’s nobility in the work, surely. Imagine knowing that, as a public defender, you may be a person’s last chance to struggle beyond the riptides of the legal system. This may be some solace. There’s something deeply good about being able to make a difference in another person’s life. Doing something to try to beat back a judicial system that’s running amok, in many cases, helping people unable to “swim” in those waters is, yes, noble.
(Imagine what it was like, too, for generations of people accused of crimes not to have access to legal representation. The right to a public defender came about in the United States in 1963, when the Supreme Court in Gideon v. Wainwright ruled that the Constitution’s Sixth Amendment requires provision of free legal counsel to indigent defendants in criminal cases.)
Imagine being willing to do a job every day knowing these things: the workload will be heartbreakingly unmanageable; the desire to find the fair and right outcome will often not be shared by others in the courtroom; and the toll of the work will be (possibly) questioned by one’s own loved ones. At least, one would think, the support within the offices of public defenders would be helpful, if only in the way that almost-unimaginable hardship bonds people.
Imagine doing this for an average salary of $42,000 to $59,000 a year (depending on the source), heavy law school loans notwithstanding. If the work is noble, the expense of it is in no way covered by the salary. Certainly not when compared with what a law degree could bring in, financially. Certainly not, either, with the emotional, spiritual, and physical costs.
My daughter is a public defender. In law school she was at a loss where to aim her bent for social justice and her not-inconsiderable negotiating talents. Imagine her joy to discover the world of public defense work (I remember the phone call, when she said, “I think I’ve found my people!”) Imagine her discovering like-minded people at the non-profit, Gideon’s Promise. It’s an excellent organization with the mission of promoting best-practice public defense work, so that marginalized communities might receive equal justice.
And yet her work is unimaginable. My daughter entered the fray in 2016 with the encouragement and support of others (including through the Law School Partnership program at Gideon’s Promise). Some of them have been on this path, fighting for justice, for decades. They all know far too well the hard edges, suffering on behalf of clients who often suffer even more. I am not speaking for her. I am speaking as a parent, someone who has watched from the sidelines not just her personal experience but those of quite a few others as well. Each of these impressive people has enormous strength, character, and determination.
Three years into the work, her idealism is a bit tattered. I don’t know what the future holds, but recently, something happened that, by its silence, speaks volumes. There’s been a lot of turnover at her office, something that’s endemic to public defense work. On a Friday a few weeks ago, a dear friend departed for a different job. On the same day, another dear colleague and mentor retired from (get this) more than 25 years in the job. Imagine. Twenty-five-plus years as a public defender.
The kicker was in the silence. Instead of a ticker-tape parade (which I feel he deserved!), or a congratulatory billboard on the highway, or even an office gathering, there was...nothing. (Ok, in fairness, the judge from the courtroom Trent worked in for the past decade hosted a lunch.) But when this worn-out warhorse who has been (not surprisingly) fighting some serious illnesses and personal setbacks stopped by the office on his final day, it was all just business as usual. Imagine, walking into a place for your final time, to gather your things and maybe say a few goodbyes, and encountering people surprised at your news. There hadn’t really been an announcement. There wasn’t a banner, or a punchbowl and cookies to gather ‘round, or, well, anything. (Full disclosure: the office higher-ups claim he’ll get a party later, when he’s feeling better. Stay tuned.)
Imagine the message, when younger attorneys already careworn by caseloads exceeding 100, but who are trying to fight the good fight, accustomed to witnessing a lack of humanity in the courtroom, see such a thing. To have to witness the way Trent went out the door after 25-plus years? Imagine.
The immense project of fixing a (very) broken legal system is daunting and a completely different topic. But within the offices of public defenders it shouldn’t be too hard for those in charge to do better at recognizing and supporting their own troops, one would think. As I said, imagine entering a profession notorious for its soul-sucking nature.
For more, see:
--- Tina Peng, “I’m a public defender. It’s impossible for me to do a good job representing my clients.” at washingtonpost.com/opinions/our-public-defender-system-isnt-just-broken--its-unconstitutional
--- Gideon’s Promise: gideonspromise.org