Thursday, September 28, 2006

"Self-Impressed Public Defender Hiring Committee"

Through Arbitrary and Capricious here and here, the awful experience of interviewing for a public defender position when the interviewers have some kind of bizarre ego/power trip is recounted. "Come to the interview! We'll abuse you!"

I had an experience like this in the interview for the job I got in Minnesota. I had been a defender for about three years in Wisconsin and had to move to the Twin Cities. I knew I didn't want to do anything else other than public defense, thought I knew what I was doing, thought I knew how to interview well, and thought I could communicate that I would be a good guy to have around the office.

Halfway through the interview, the panel of three breaks into an awful hypothetical where I am the lawyer interviewing two clients at the same time - husband and wife, both accused of being involved in the same incident. Two male interviewers play the couple. The man is ranting, yelling, and screaming at his "wife." The "wife" is whimpering, crying, and inaudible. I can't get a word in edgewise.

The goal of this role-playing is to test action under pressure. Am I able to respond to stress? Can I handle difficult people? (As if three years of public defending wouldn't have already demonstrated that.)

I kept thinking during the role play exactly how little I would like to work with these freaks. On the drive home, I was extremely depressed, because I thought I had a shot at the job. Completely the opposite of how you might usually feel when you're thinking you might just get a job offer this time. When a member of the hiring committee called the next day to offer the job, I accepted, but wasn't excited.

The person who offered the job called back the next day to make sure I was alright because she sensed I wasn't all that keen on the job. I said I was sad to be leaving my job in Wisconsin, which was true. It was where I became a defender. I had a lot of great mentors there and I was established in that community. I had a lot of people in my office there that I would be happy to go out to lunch with or drinks after work.

Now I was going to be working with a bunch of sadists. (I wasn't sure that "sadists" was the right word, but I googled it and it came back "Sadism is the ability to derive pleasure as a direct result of others' suffering." Exactly.)

Almost six years later, I work in the same district and I interview prospective attorneys. I promise to never forget that experience. I think and hope that we try to sell people on our office, thank them for taking the time to meet with us, and make sure they know that we are honored to be interviewing a person of their qualifications. We use the exact same hypothetical and only rarely role-play it - when we do, there is no sadism involved.

Thursday, September 21, 2006

State Investigator: Sherburne County Jail Screwed Up

A state investigation concluded, to not much surprise, that Sherburne County Jail should have taken more care in housing the man who allegedly killed a guy being held in jail on a no insurance charge last month.

The investigation stated that the jail should have assigned a higher custody level to Bruce Christenson because 1) he was being transported from MCF-Oak Park Heights, Minnesota's most secure facilty and the place where inmates go when they have had trouble in other prisons, and 2) he was brought to Sherburne County on a charge of assault with a dangerous weapon.

The Star Tribune article is here. The Pioneer Press article here has more detail, including this nugget at the end:

"[Carl] Moyle [the victim] had been jailed because he had a third violation of driving without insurance, and Elk River police policy calls for the driver to appear before a judge.
But neither the police nor the jail was required to keep Moyle in custody until his court appearance, which was scheduled for the next day, said Bill Ward, chief public defender for the 10th Judicial District, which includes Sherburne County."

Wednesday, September 20, 2006

Two Minutes A Client

I am a defender in a county that handles new in custody defendants' appearances at 10:30 a.m. every morning. People arrested on new offenses, picked up on warrants for missing court, picked up on warrant for alleged probation violations, or picked up alleged release condition violations are brought before a judge to have bail conditions and next hearing dates set.

Every public defender wherever they work has some version of this calendar. I have been a public defender in two states and in a few different counties. This "jail calendar" sucks wherever it is.

In my current county, there is a lot good about the process that is better than other places. We are provided with a list of the defendants set for hearing. The list gives us sketchy but useful information in order to help us figure out where the client's case is procedurally. We aren't a huge county, so the daily lists range from 20 to 35 defendants, which is much better than horror stories I hear from bigger jurisdictions.

We get the list about 60 minutes before the hearing. We have one or two attorneys, ideally, handling the calendars, but over the past few years we have not had attorney staff to handle the calendars. We have law students, who are permitted by Supreme Court rules to handle court appearances, represent our clients on the jail calendar. I help train the students and feel confident that they do a good job. But it isn't the way it should be. Defendants should have attorneys at their bail hearing. It's hard to think of a more crucial hearing (other than trial) than that, in the client's eyes anyway.

The attorneys/law students walk into a 20' x 20' room filled with dozens of men - some drunk, high, mentally ill, scared, sleepy, mad, and everything else - all wondering when they're getting out of jail. They want to tell you about their alibi, that their cat that isn't getting fed, the job interview they have, that Jim Morrison is talking to them, that the girlfriend that had it coming, their sadness, and everything in between.

We have two minutes with each client if we are going to be in the courtroom when the judge starts calling cases - three minutes if we're lucky. Sometimes the judge waits. That time is important. We talk all the time about what it takes to establish trust with our clients. We cut to the chase.

"Today will not be the day to fight your case. Today is the day I am going to try to get you out of jail. What I ask you is what I have to know in order to make the best possible argument to get you out of jail."

That shuts up the chatter. The room is quiet and people listen.

I wish there was a better way to do it.

Monday, September 11, 2006

"You can usually spot these imposters right away. Most of them are dressed inappropriately for court."

Juvie Journal vents about public pretenders in a recent post. The post rails against lawyers failing to appreciate the consequences of taking an "it's only juvenile court" attitude in juvenile cases. The focus is public defenders, but, I think, it really applies to any attorney who thinks they can "wing" an appearance in juvenile court.

The stakes in juvenile court are no longer small. "Get tough on crime" has morphed into "get tough on kids" without any regard for the fact that kids are just different than adults but they are now facing lifelong consequences in many cases. Our best juvenile court defense attorneys in Minnesota are public defenders, without a doubt. Most of the local private defense bar will refer well-heeled parents to our office rather than take a juvenile court case (which brings up the issue of whether public defenders should be representing kids of parents with resources to hire counsel - since the kid is the client, we should be on these cases so the client has an advocate independant of the wishes of the parent).

I liked the way the writer (who is, based on a response to a comment on her post, also a public defender) indentified dress and appearance as an indicator of an attorney failing to understand the importance of what they do. There are some attorneys that are incredibly brilliant legal minds and great with clients but they undercut their effectiveness by looking ridiculous.

I am completely sensitive to the fact that we make very little money to spend on clothes, precious haircuts, and whatever other fancy accessories pretty people wear. After housing and student loans there isn't a lot left at the end of the month to replace a suit with one that isn't worn in the knee. I'm no fashion plate so I'm hesitant to even raise this issue due to the risk of being labeled a hypocrite.

But, just dress as well as you can. Wear a clean suit, comb your hair, and use breath mints (we do so much whispering, you simply gotta have those - that mixture of coffee and cigarette smoke coupled with last night's booze just ain't appealing.)

Dress like Reed Hadley (pictured above) in "Public Defender." He looks just fine.

Tuesday, September 5, 2006

Law Broken In Cleveland

Badgers win season opener 35-14.

In other less trivial (but not as fun) news, the recent discharge of a contract public defender handling a Wisconsin homicide case has led to difficulties in finding a replacement attorney. The reason: no one will take it at $40 an hour. I used to work in Wisconsin as a full-time defender. I didn't make $40 an hour there and I don't in Minnesota. But I also don't have to pay overhead and probably wouldn't have to balance a completely full caseload while handling a murder case.

I think most folks will read this article, and articles like it, and roll their eyes about the poor lawyers who can't do a job for $40 an hour. I can't blame them. I just wonder though, is there a better way to make the case that $40 an hour isn't enough? I also think that these articles highlight what a bargain full-time defenders are (without saying it). We are so damn good - and so cheap too.