I've been getting quite a bit of mail about the recent posts about the St. Petersburg Times series on public defenders. Interestingly much of it has focused on a point I made about Charley Demosthenous's education and bar passage record, and most of it seems to misunderstand my point.

PD talking with a juvenile client

So let me try again: I think PD's do the most righteous work in the world. I was one for almost 15 years and continue to do indigent defense work to this day. My point isn't about Charley's education--it is about the St. Petersburg Time's editorial decisions. What appalls me about the series is not that Charley seems to be a kindly, vaguely pugilistic hack who is getting his chops working at the PD's office because the prosecutors wouldn't hire him--while I wish there weren't such people doing this sacred work, I accept it as the occasional reality--but rather that the newspaper picked him to follow and him as a placeholder for all of us. That editorial decision is unforgivable. My point is not that PD's need any particular qualification, but rather that they are constantly portrayed as bottom feeders rather than the highly skilled, deeply dedicated and terrifically passionate people they are. Had they at least picked someone who cared about clients rather than his own manliness, it might have been passable. Instead the series is insufferable.


Seth Abramson said...


I think--I hope--most of your fellow public defenders will take your point as it was intended. As an attorney with the New Hampshire Public Defender--whose hiring standards, I think, are similar to those of the Bronx Defenders--the key, for me, is to understand that what public defenders have in common is their desire to do the work they do (underpaid and underappreciated legal work is not, really, so difficult to find, so the premise of public defense as a "last refuge" is laughable) and not anything which appears on a CV. Pointing out that there are public defenders from all educational backgrounds advances this entirely correct view of our sub-category of the profession...and is so necessary because prevailing assumptions (that all public defenders are deadbeats of one sort or another) are inclined toward a monolithic view of public defenders' educational backgrounds (to wit, that they are "modest"). I'm Dartmouth class of '98, Harvard Law School class of '01, and a proud public defender. And my colleagues here in New Hampshire, whether they have identical "pedigrees" or not, are some of the finest, brightest, most committed, most courageous people I've ever met in my life. You'd really have to hunt around (in New England, at least) to find a public defender of the sort now being profiled down in Florida--so in my humble view, it's an obvious snowjob.

Stay strong, brother--


AC said...

I'd say that these profiles are accurate. As a APD in South Florida area, I see many dedicated APDs. The actual Public Defender in Dade, Broward, and Palm Beach are great. Similarly, I believe that there are likely not that many deadbeat PDs in all of California, DC, New Hampshire, or at the Bronx Defenders. I know four people in Bronx there and they are all people I'd have represent me if I ever got in trouble. Same with the entire staff at PDS in DC.

There are many true believers and hard workers in other areas of Florida too, but the Times decided to cover someone less than wonderful. That's a good thing. Why might the Tampa PD Julianne M. Holt have some not so great lawyers? The Times covered that too. Is it any surprise that it was from Tampa that this man was just freed after 24 years? Without coverage of these problems, how will the general public stand up and vote out incompetent PDs to ensure that the amount of justice a person gets is not dependent on the amount of money they have.

Anonymous said...

Well-qualified lawyers are happy to do low-paid public interest work in cool cities like New York, DC, Portland, or Chicago, or Austin--places where their work is by and large respected in the community. Tell someone you're a PD in Seattle, and they'll say (and I quote) "awesome!"

In Alabama; Tampa; Neosho, Missouri: It's a low-status job. Your friends are neighbors have no clue why someone who choose to defend the indigent. Tell a stranger you're a PD, and he'll say something like, "All right. Well, that's got to be . . . um. . . interesting work."

Also, a lot of the more prestigous schools make student loan payments for those who work in public interest jobs. NYU, Harvard, etc. University of Illinois-Carbonale? No.