U.S. Capitol building

Why I Like D.C.’s Public Defender Service

Jamison KoehlerD.C. Superior Court, Law Practice

When I worked as a public defender in Philadelphia, we had what I can only describe as an uneasy relationship with the private criminal defense bar.  Looking at it from the standpoint of the PD’s office, there were a number of reasons for this somewhat dysfunctional relationship.

For one thing, some of the private defense attorneys were just plain bad, lining up clients with no intention of ever taking anything to trial.  I think of one guy in particular who, although always very entertaining to watch in court, would take a client’s money for the preliminary hearing in a felony case.  He would then drop the client after the hearing, leaving public defenders to deal with the mess he had created.  Although he was a constant presence in the court house, not one of us had ever seen him try a case.  (Last I heard, this guy was serving time in a state penitentiary for having sexual relations with a minor — his goddaughter no less — in the court building.)

Even with some of the better lawyers, we were sometimes resentful when private counsel would step in at the last moment, accepting money from people who really could not afford the fee only to bring to conclusion what we had begun.  Finally, and perhaps most importantly, the sheer volume of cases in Philadelphia often made it difficult to think about anything but keeping our heads above water.  There was no time – either individually or as an organization – to worry about what the private defense bar was up to.

I was therefore pleasantly surprised upon moving to D.C. to find not only a first-rate organization in the Public Defender Service of the District but also a very healthy relationship between the office and the private criminal defense bar.  The fact is, PDS is absolutely committed to improving the quality of legal representation that is provided to the city’s indigent defendants.  It doesn’t matter to PDS whether that representation is provided by PDS itself or by a private attorney who accepts court-appointed cases.  And PDS does this without that put-upon, holier-than-thou piousness that seems to afflict many public interest organizations.

PDS’s strength begins with its lawyers. I was sitting in JM-15 the other day watching what had to have been one of the best probable cause hearing cross-examinations I had ever seen. I felt a tad less inadequate when I found out that the brand new public defender conducting the cross-examination was Andrew Crespo, a former president of the Harvard Law Review and U.S. Supreme Court law clerk.  I have already raved here about Mani Golzari, Jackie Cadman, Colle Latin, Michael Carter, Nancy Glass, Ed Shackley and others.  And I have been following Sandra Levick like a star-struck fan ever since I first read about her in connection with the Donald E. Gates case.  I guess you can get anybody you want when you are widely considered to be the best PD’s office in the country.

No matter how qualified its own attorneys may be, PDS also worries about the quality of legal representation provided to indigent defendants across the board.  It trains all the lawyers who take on court-appointed cases for both adults and juveniles.  In addition to the annual session of the Criminal Practice Institute, it hosts numerous CLE sessions during the year, most recently a session on challenging eye witness identifications.  This summer’s “mini-series” focused on vehicle searches and seizures, the exclusionary rule, witness statements, witness representation, and juvenile and mental health clients.

Even more helpful than the sessions themselves is the access PDS provides to its lawyers. I attended the two summer sessions led by Alec Karakatsanis. As a fairly recent graduate of Yale University and Harvard Law School, Karakatsanis has a certain intensity you have to admire without all the baggage that normally goes with that intensity. Inspired by some of the things he had said during the session, I emailed him with a couple of questions afterward. Now I have done these things before.  I understand that, while many presenters who give you their email addresses and direct telephone numbers are absolutely sincere when they encourage you to contact them with follow-up questions, it is often difficult for them to follow through on that offer once they return to the pressures of the office.  In Karakatsanis’ case, I had an answer the next morning.  His email was even longer than the one I had sent.

In fairness, there are a number of things that prevent the public defender’s office in Philadelphia from performing the same role as PDS when it comes to working with the private defense bar.  For one thing, according to the last figures I saw, the Philly PD’s office represents 70% of the indigent criminal defendants in that city, as opposed to 20% or so for PDS.  PDS thus has a much greater need to leverage itself.

The other factor, of course, comes down to resources. PDS lawyers receive a salary that is probably twice what public defenders in Philly earn, and there has to be something about working in the nation’s capitol that enables PDS to attract the best lawyers. In addition, from what I understand from the lawyers who have worked at both organizations, the caseload PDS lawyers face pales in comparison with what Philly public defenders must contend with.

Whatever the reasons, the private criminal defense bar in D.C. is a major beneficiary of PDS’ resources and capabilities. As PDS General Counsel Julia Leighton put it during a CLE session the other day, challenge us to do a better job in making sure that the city’s indigent defendants get the quality of legal representation they deserve, and we will challenge you.

More like this:

Firing Andrew Crespo

Watching Amy Phillips