The late comedian Rodney Dangerfield used to famously say, “I get no respect.” Unfortunately, many public defenders know what that feels like because the public largely doesn’t understand who public defenders are and what they do.
Some people believe that student attorneys or lawyers who could not find other work are public defenders and this is simply not true. Public defenders are lawyers who dedicate themselves to representing indigent clients in court. Some are among the very best lawyers that are seen in court. Additionally, due to their concentrated practice areas, many are also among the most respected experts in certain fields of the law.
Public defenders serve on a wide variety of cases. Typically those cases involve legal actions commenced by the government that threaten to take away, or seriously affect, someone’s most fundamental rights. This includes criminal cases where someone is facing incarceration, juvenile cases where a child might be removed from their home, cases involving termination of parental rights, paternity, forced commitments to a psychiatric facility, and cases where a guardian could be appointed to take charge of someone’s person or estate.
Courts do not appoint public defenders until it is shown that a person is in fact indigent. Indigent means not being reasonably able to afford to hire an attorney. Each person applying for a public defender has to disclose, under oath, their income, living expenses, debts, assets, and the number of people living at their home. Most public defender clients are either on means-tested public assistance or have incomes below the federal poverty guidelines. Only after a judge has made a careful inquiry into all relevant factors will a decision be made as to whether or not a public defender will be appointed.
Unlike most attorneys, public defenders generally don’t get to pick and choose who their clients are. They take those clients whose cases end up on their desks. Sometimes they get some of the most challenging cases that exist in our court system. These cases can involve very difficult and complex legal issues. Other times the case may involve horrible allegations, or the client may be difficult to deal with. Nonetheless, like all lawyers, they are charged with the responsibility of competently and zealously representing their client’s interests.
I am sometimes asked how criminal defense lawyers, including public defenders, can defend people that they know are guilty of serious crimes. I like to respond that we are all fortunate that they do so. Without someone fighting to protect the rights of those that society doesn’t always seem to care too much about (either because of poverty or the disturbing nature of the allegations) none of our rights would be very secure.
If shortcuts are taken for those that some deem unworthy of our justice system, then it will not be long before shortcuts are taken in every case. Every single person who appears in court is entitled to be treated fairly and properly in accordance with the law. The road to justice has no shortcuts.
Tenth Judcial District Judge Greg Galler is chambered in Washington County. If you have a general question about the law or courts for Judge Galler, send your question to the editor of this newspaper. Learn more about Judge Galler, or listen to a podcast of his columns at www.judgegreggaller.com.