A Public Defender with a Sense of Humor

by Jamison Koehler on February 10, 2010

A couple of weeks ago, I complained about the lack of criminal law blogs done by women.  I also bemoaned the fact that, with a few exceptions, there do not seem to be many public defender blogs that don’t sound preachy, sanctimonious, and put-upon.   Yes, you’re a public defender.  Yes, the caseload is overwhelming.  Yes, the pay is pitiful.  And yes, you get no respect or gratitude from your clients.  Now move on.  It’s not that I don’t agree with you.  It’s that I get tired of reading about it.

I was thus pleased to discover a brand new site, Public Defender Revolution, which offers a new twist on things.   It is also written by two women:  “Carol D” of an unknown location and “k” from somewhere in Washington state.  The writing is fresh and honest, and the two women seem to have a sense of humor, both about themselves and about the challenges of being a public defender.

"Carol D"

The fact is, and I speak from personal experience, I don’t think you can survive long as a public defender if you don’t have a sense of humor.

In a recent post, Carol D tells the story about representing a difficult client.  A colleague at the Federal Defender’s Office is representing the same client on another case, and when Carol D calls the defender to update her on the state case, Carol D makes the mistake of lowering her guard and joking about the client.  “Well,” responded the federal defender primly.  “He still deserves the effective assistance of counsel.”

I was pissed, Carol D reports.  I didn’t deserve what she said – what a judgmental bitch.

Was the federal defender any more committed to this client than Carol D?  I don’t so.

The fact is, public defenders often do joke about difficult clients.  It’s not that the defenders who do this are any less committed than those who don’t.  It is that, for many, the joking is a way to vent.  If you can’t find humor in the petty slights inflicted on you every day by the courts, by the prosecution, and by clients, you will burn out.  You will end up annoying everyone around you.  You will become the federal defender described in Carol D’s story.

My explanation for the federal defender’s behavior is as follows. It is no secret that lawyers are competitive.  We like to win.  We like to be the best.  But sometimes, in order to win the contest, we have to pick out battles.  A public defender is never going to win any contest having to do with money or prestige.  So why not win the “I am more committed than you” contest?

Either that or she was having a bad day.

Public Defender Revolution also addresses, with humor, the age-old cocktail party question every criminal defense lawyer hears: How can you defend someone you know is guilty?”

The question perplexes every criminal lawyer because, as hard as we try, we really don’t see the dilemma.   According to Public Defender Revolution, there is the patient response:  “The constitution requires that a jury determine guilt, not I.”  There is the analogy:  “Do you ask doctors how they can treat people who are sick?”  There is the defiant:  “Because I have no soul.”  There is the logical:  “If the guilty are not to have lawyers, who decides which of the accused gets lawyers?”  And then there is the real:  “The guilty are easy; it is the innocent ones that kill you.”

Every lawyer has his or her own response to this question.  I have heard many different variations.  For the record, here is mine:  Whether or not a client IS guilty really doesn’t matter.  You don’t even think about it after a while.  You look at the strength of the prosecution’s case.  You look at the strength of your own case.  And then you decide whether or not the client will be FOUND guilty if you take it to trial.

I guess you could say I fall into the “no soul” category.

Public Defender Revolution is off to a great start.  I wish them all the best.

2 Comments on “A Public Defender with a Sense of Humor

  1. Sounds like a good blog, I’ll have to check it out.

    And I totally know what you mean about having a sense of humor. As you know, it’s the same on both sides of the aisle, and the humor is often shared between ADAs and defense lawyers. The trick is not making the wrong joke in front of the wrong people!

  2. Once again, it’s great to have the perspective of a prosecutor on this site. As the song in “Oklahoma!” goes, the cowboys and the ranchers should be friends. And my pal Hamilton Burger seems to have gone awol.

    I’ve noticed a dynamic among prosecutors that is similar to the one I described above among defenders. Some of the prosecutions take the whole “Justice Must Be Done” approach. Others are more pragmatic. What’s the fair thing to do here?

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *