Wednesday, December 27, 2006

Home for the Holidays

As I'm writing this, I'm in the house I grew up in. I am spending time with my family for the holidays. It's always strange for me being home. Maybe because I've lived somewhere else for so long. I went as far away from home as I could get to go to college, and then I went even farther away for law school. I lost touch with nearly everyone I knew here. In a way, it seems like just last week I was sneaking in the door late at night, hoping not to wake my parents. And in another way, it seems like this is not really the same place I lived in at all. I mean, this is the same house, but the kitchen and both bathrooms have been re-modeled, and there is a lot of new furniture. Only one of the houses in the neighborhood contains the same family that it did when I lived here. They put in new, brightly colored play equipment in at the park a block away. They are about half-way finished demolishing the auto-body plant that I walked by every day on the way to school, picket-lines and all. Kids I used to baby-sit for when they were three years old are now juniors in college. It feels like I somehow fell asleep for ten years, like Rip Van Winkle.

But at the same time, it can't be that strange. I mean, throughout this post, I've been calling this house, this place I am now "home": a place I haven't lived since I was eighteen. They say, "Home is where, if you have to go there, they have to take you in." I didn't have to come here. I chose to. My family's here, and I wanted to spend Christmas with them. If "home is where the heart is" (sappy though that saying is), then I guess my heart, at this time, is here with my family. As it should be at this time of year.

Sunday, December 03, 2006

A Mental Health Update

I'm apparently not the only one concerned with the mental healthcare (or lack thereof) in the criminal justice system.


I was somewhat encouraged this week with regard to our new judge and competency cases. I had my 3 "dangerousness" hearings on Thursday, to which I referred previously. She actually agreed to dismiss two of the cases, as the State conceded that the clients did not meet the definition of "dangerous" in the statute, and the third she sent to the state mental hospital to treat to competence. I was surprised that she agreed to actually dismiss the cases, rather than wanting the State to dismiss them. I was hoping she would dismiss the third case, since the client had already been to the mental hospital on this case, and upon return to jail refused her meds and became incompetent again. But, at least, she's out of jail for a while. And who knows, maybe this time she will actually stay on her meds.

The really good development occurred after the hearings, when the judge asked the Deputy DA, me, and the court administrator back to her chambers. She wanted to discuss setting up a mental health court, and it seems that she really wants to go through with it. As I said in the post linked above, my only reservation with this is that we don't have a lot of services in this community for the mentally ill, and without adequate services, I don't see how a mental health court would work. But both the court administrator and the Deputy DA agreed with me that services in the community were required for this to work. So, I feel better about this now. The administrator is going to get us some procedures manuals from other mental health courts in the state in the next couple of weeks so that we can see how theirs work. He also wants to schedule a field trip to a mental health court sometime in January to see what it looks like. In the meanwhile, he's going to explore funding sources.

My boss even said I could represent our office in whatever committee gets formed to implement this. It is exciting to be able to help address a problem that the justice system is unable to adequately cope with, but that affects the justice system and those involved in it on a daily basis. I invite anyone to comment with ideas of what works or doesn't work.

'Tis the Season

Well, I guess it's officially the Holiday Season. I can tell this because the weather is cold, the mall is packed, plane tickets are expensive, there has been a marked increase in my shoplifting and larceny cases, and I have a cold. That's ok, though. I'm kind of in the mood for the holidays this year. Some years I'm really not that interested in Christmas. I mean it's kind of a hassle to do all the preparatory shopping, and I frequently end up with a lot of trials set for the first couple weeks of December because the judges want to go out of town for the holidays and they don't want to let the time-limits run. But for some reason, I'm actually "in the Christmas spirit" this year, whatever that means. It may have something to do with the fact I get to spend Christmas with my family this year. Or maybe it's because I had a whole bunch of trials set September through November, and there aren't any left for December. Or maybe I'm just fickle.

Whatever the reason, I think I'll just enjoy this feeling as long as it lasts. I will play Christmas carols on the stereo, surf the internet for Christmas presents (I never could stand the mall), try to be nice to everyone, and be happy no matter how many bah-humbuggers there are out there.

Saturday, November 25, 2006

Happy Thanksgiving

I have been very bad about posting lately, partially due to being insanely busy at work, and partly due to my general slackerness. I am hoping for this to change in the days to come. I have now finished all of my docketing statements, and I don't have another trial set until December 8. The trial probably will plead out before that, if I can get the prosecutor to give me a slightly better plea offer. Docketing statements are the worst part about losing trials. They are a statement of what happened at the trial court and a list of issues you want addressed on appeal. Now that these are out of the way, all I have to do at work is deal with the immense pile of stuff on my desk that accumulated while I was losing trials and writing docketing statements. To give you an idea of how much that stuff amounts to, I have about 20 files waiting to be put back in the cabinet, about 10 new files to review and figure out what needs to be done with them, and about 50 that went to court in the past couple of weeks that need notes in them of what happened and also to be returned to the cabinet. (In case you're counting, yes, that's about 80 files sitting on my desk in addition to however many are still in the cabinet.) This is not mentioning the 5 or 6 inch stack of random papers that must be sorted and put in their proper files and a few suppression motions that should be dealt with at some point soon. It's amazing that as busy as I've been, my desk looks like I've been doing nothing for the past couple weeks.

All of that aside, I now have a nice four-day weekend in which to relax, not think about work, watch football, eat turkey, come up with vague ideas for Christmas presents, and remember friends and family. After all, isn't that what Thanksgiving is all about?

Saturday, November 18, 2006

On Micro-Management

Micro-management is the bane of any office. It is contrary to a productive and congenial working environment. It forces employees to spend their time and energy on minute and petty tasks as opposed to what their actual jobs are. It pits "management" and "workers" against each other because of "management's" desire to check up on and nit-pick every aspect of how the "workers" do their jobs. It breeds mistrust on both sides, since "management" always suspects that the "workers" are not following the rules and the "workers" are always looking over their shoulders to see if Big Brother is watching. It is a waste of time, resources, and energy with no benefit.

We are professional people. We are attorneys. We show up to court when we are supposed to, and we show up prepared. We file our motions on time. We communicate with our clients whenever possible. If we did not, getting written up by the Boss would be the least of our problems. Much bigger problems would include being held in contempt by judges, being sanctioned by the Bar Association, having bad reputations in the legal community, and being sued by our clients or their families.

As none of these things have happened to anyone in our office, why the sudden need to audit how many breaks we take, our computer usage, and our telephone calls? Why should anyone care if we show up to the office 10 minutes late, stop for coffee and a bagel on the way back from court, leave the office at 4:40 so we can get to the bank before it closes, or surf the 'net when our brains are too fried to accomplish anything useful? According to the Boss, he has Information that the attorneys are not working 40 hours a week! This strikes me as amusing, or it would if it were not so asinine.

When I went to the office last Sunday, an attorney and a paralegal were both there at the time I was. When I go in this weekend to write 2 docketing statements, I expect to see at least one other attorney there at the same time I am. I can't remember the last time I left the office at 5:00. I defy anyone to prove that I don't put in my 40 hours!

The thing that bugs me the most about this is that the issue doesn't seem to be whether we are doing our jobs competently. The issue seems to be how much time we spend at it. And this is just ridiculous! It serves no purpose! The issue should be whether we are zealously and competently representing our clients. It should not be whether we are at our desks from 8 to 5 Monday through Friday. Why can't the Boss just trust that if we are doing are jobs correctly, we are putting in our 40 hours? This way, he doesn't have to worry about checking up on us all the time, and we can concentrate on our actual work, rather than worrying about whether he'll notice that we got back from lunch 15 minutes late.

Friday, November 10, 2006

Has it Really Been Five Years?!?

An Update:

My co-workers did make me a T-Shirt to commemorate. It says, "I've been a public defender for 5 years and all I get is a lousy T-shirt." It was sweet.


Original Post:

Yes! Much to my astonishment, and to the astonishment of the former Chief Public Defender of New Mexico who said she did not think I was "sufficiently defense oriented" for this job, today is my fifth anniversary as a public defender here in Podunk, New Mexico. (Well, technically, it's not until Sunday, but I'm blogging now and may not be in the mood then.) I am not expecting a watch or a plaque or anything, because I doubt that anyone who would be in a position to give me those things has noticed. But that is fine with me. If I were doing this for recognition, I am in the wrong line of work!

Regardless, this has caused me to be somewhat introspective today. This was the first job I had out of law school. When I began, unlike many others who graduated with me wanting specifically to be public defenders, I was not interested in Making a Difference in the cosmic sense. I did not want to bring Justice to the world at large. I did not have an Ideology I wanted to put into put into practice. I did not want to Fight the Power. Those things were, and still are, too grand for me. I am a small person with a small reach. I do not have, nor do I want, power, fame, or influence. I cannot hope to Change the World.

I can, however, help people. Not People, as in all people, but individuals. I help them to navigate this bizarre and arcane world of courts and laws, which is hard even for educated and articulate people to deal with, much more so for the poor and uneducated. I speak for them, even when no one else will. Not to the legislature, or to the media, but to the man who has the big hammer and the power to take them from their homes and families. I cannot say I've made my clients into law abiding citizens. But I can say that I have changed some of my client's lives for the better. And that is plenty of reward for me.

I had one client a year or two ago, probably about 20 years old. All the police officers knew him and his family. The police were always so sure that he was using and/or dealing drugs (they were probably not wrong) that they would constantly question him, search him, and arrest him. They were so gung-ho about sending him to prison that they neglected such niceties as having probable cause to arrest and reasonable suspicion for searches. The first case I represented him on was dismissed by the prosecutor after I filed a motion to suppress an illegal search. While this was pending, he picked up another. This one the Judge dismissed because of an illegal search. While both of these were pending, he picked up a 3rd case with an illegal arrest. This one pled down to a misdemeanor with no jail time and no probation. When all was said and done, all his felonies were dismissed. The best part about this, though, was not the outcome of his criminal cases. He had somehow come through all this with a new lease on life. He resolved to get clean, stay clean, get a legitimate job, and support his new wife and child. He wrote me a poem. It wasn't Shakespeare, but it was sincere. In it, he thanked me for helping him. He wrote that if I had not stood up for him, he would not have had any desire to change. The idea that there were people who could help him on the right path showed him that the world was not always out to get him. He wrote that I helped him to see that there is more to this world than courts and jails and drugs and gangs. He hasn't been arrested since. This is why I do this.

Even if I never get another acquittal. Even if I never have another client thank me. I helped someone change their life. This makes it all worth it. This is why I am proud to be a public defender.

Of my friends who wanted so desperately to be public defenders in law school, only one is still a public defender in addition to me. All the others moved on when they discovered that to Change the World, you need more power and influence than you have being a public defender. They were frustrated by the perceived futility of what we do. They were depressed by how far reality can be from their shining ideals. I am not. I have known for a long time that this world, and the justice system, are not perfect. And as long as imperfect people are running the world and the courts, they probably won't be. But I am happy knowing that as small and insignificant I am, I can do things that sometimes make a large difference in the lives of individual people. And I do not care that no one has ever heard of the people I have helped. I do not care that it is rarely front-page news (and when it is, usually the headline is something like, "Criminal Gets Off on Technicality"). The bottom line is, this is fulfilling to me. And it does make a difference (small letters). And I look forward to posting in another five years how I have been doing this for a decade.

On Mental Health

As I have said before, I have a soft spot for my competency clients. Others have also posted recently on this subject, and I feel it is one that must be dealt with if, for no other reason, very few people seem to understand or care about it.

An example:

I had my first competency hearings in front of a brand-new judge yesterday. It was appalling! It was clear within minutes that not only had she not bothered to educate herself about how these types of cases are to proceed through the court system, she would not listen to me as I attempted to explain how they are supposed to work. And I wasn't using my own words, I was reading the statute book! "If a client is determined incompetent, charged with a felony, and not at that time determined dangerous, the case must be dismissed." Misdemeanors are dismissed on a finding of incompetence, period, regardless of supposed dangerousness. Instead, she found all my clients incompetent and set them all (including the misdemeanors) 3 weeks from now for "dangerousness hearings" (no such things exist in New Mexico), keeping the clients in jail in the meantime. This, of course, put them outside the statutory timelimits. I did have one client out of jail, and I was interrogated as to why he was out. He had bonded out on 2 misdemeanors and was released without bail on the felony. The judge was distressed that he was out of jail because, she said, we can't have incompetent people running around, she started to say, "when they are dangerous" and changed it to, "when they might be dangerous."

What are we, back in the 19th century, a time when the mentally ill were greatly feared and locked up for no reason other than a few chemical imbalances in their brains? Hasn't society progressed beyond that point?

I finally figured out what this judge's deal is when, after the hearings, she started talking about setting up a mental health court. I know these exist in other places around the state. And I generally think them to be an excellent idea. However, in order for them to work, there must be services in the community for the mentally ill. For what good is the court checking to ensure that someone is taking their medication when the person is homeless and unemployed and have no means by which to obtain either housing or an income and no one to help them get to a doctor and become stabilized on their meds? Upon voicing my views about this with the judge, she was not swayed, or even interested. So, if she has her way, we will soon have a court program that punishes the mentally ill for not remaining on their meds when they have no means to do so, and she will have set up an ineffectual program that will look good to her political higher-ups and help her climb the political ladder because she will have single-handedly gotten those "crazies" off the streets.

I hate politics. Especially when those sacrificed to it have no choice in the matter.

Tuesday, November 07, 2006


As much as I complain about the state of our country: about how the "justice system" seems so rarely to dispense actual justice, and how politicians can be corrupt and petty and can seem to only care about furthering their political careers instead of serving the public; I am reminded today of how great it is to be a citizen of this country. We have a voice. We have a say in how we are taxed, who makes our laws, and who enforces them. Even though it often seems that my voice is swallowed up in the sea of those who view the world differently than I, I can still make my voice count. Because I can make known through the ballot box that I desire change; that I am not swayed by fancy, high-priced advertisements on t.v. I know who I want to represent me in the legislative bodies of this country. I know who I want to lead this country and this state. I know who I want to sit on the bench and make rulings that affect the lives of those who come into our courts. I can express this.

The ballot box is more effective in expressing this than if I were to stand on the street corner with a sign and a mega-phone announcing my views to all who would listen. Because the people who would listen to me on my street corner are not necessarily in a position to do anything about what I want. Through voting I, along with every other citizen of this country, can make this country into what we want it to be. My vote does not have more weight because I am somewhat educated. It does not have less weight because I cannot trace my ancestry to a king. We are all equal when we cast our ballots. This is what a Democracy is meant to be.

Even if a majority of people do not agree with my views and none of the people I voted for win tonight, I am still proud to be an American: A citizen of this great country. Because I know that an armed militia will not storm the capitol. I know that the people who are voted out will leave and go on with their lives, and that the people who are voted in will not be assassinated before they can assume their duties. I know that the Rule of Law will continue to be enforced. As long as the Rule of Law is enforced, the people will have a voice. This is Democracy. This is why this country, and the principles behind it, will endure.

Sunday, November 05, 2006

Probation Violations (or not)

Well, Friday was a fairly good day. I had only 2 probation violation hearings, and got both of my clients back onto probation. Both of them had been in jail awaiting their court hearings for between 2 and 3 months. This is due to the fact that they cannot have hearings until the prosecutor files a motion that explains why they want the judge to find that the client violated his probation. Usually this entails alleging that the client did not report to his probation officer, the client acquired new criminal charges, or the client won't stop using illegal drugs. However, prior to when this motion is filed with the Court, the probation officer files paperwork alleging the client violated his probation. This paperwork has the effect of holding the client in jail without bail pending a hearing on the probation violation. There is no set time limit for how long the prosecutors may wait before filing their paperwork, so this is why the clients end up sitting in jail for months awaiting the hearing. I have yet to find a way to get the prosecutors to file their motions in a timely manner. Obviously, I cannot file a motion asking the judge to find my own client violated his probation!

This is particularly annoying when you end up with cases like I had on Friday when there really is a legitimate question about whether they violated their probation or not. The first guy I had was living in a different town when he was first placed on probation and he was already on probation in the town he was living in. His understanding was that he would be unsupervised on his probation here, and supervised by his probation officer where he lived. He had been to rehab and in all other ways complied with his probation in the town he lived in. But, he did not check in with the probation officer here. Unfortunately, his understanding was incorrect. He was supposed to check into probation here and then get it transferred to the town he lived. His probation officer here, for whatever reason, did not believe him and thought that he should go to prison for this. In my opinion (and in the prosecutor's as well) this misunderstanding was not worth sending him to prison over, so both of us asked the judge to put him back on probation, which he did. However, due to the lag in filing the paperwork to get his hearing, he spent a little over 60 days in jail behind this.

My other guy was a little more complicated. He was arrested because the police got a call that he was threatening to blow up his house (and himself). He was off his medications at the time. This resulted in a 2 hour stand-off with 4 or 5 different law enforcement agencies. When they entered the house, there was no one inside, but there was gasoline everywhere. So, they issued a warrant for his arrest. But since they couldn't really charge him with a crime, the warrant was for violating his probation. How he violated it, we're not really sure, since there's nothing in the probation agreement that prohibits dumping gasoline throughout your house. So, he gets pulled over and arrested while on his way to his monthly check-in with his probation officer. It then took about 2 months for the prosecutor to figure out what to allege he did to violate his probation, during which time he was in jail without bail. They finally settle on failing to report to his probation officer. Of course he couldn't since, he was in jail. His probation officer just wanted him back on probation, but couldn't really say so due to the publicity that the stand-off situation received. It took another month to get him into court. Finally, on Friday, the DA decides to go ahead and dismiss the probation violation charge and let him out. He had been in jail for over 3 months at that point for not violating his probation.

It just bugs me sometimes that guys like this who are really trying to do what they need to do to get through their probation end up serving months in jail for no real reason.

Tuesday, October 31, 2006

Election Time

I dislike election time for more reasons than just the annoying commercials. In our state, judges are elected. Here, magistrates handle misdemeanor cases, probable cause hearings, and set bail for all cases. They are not required to be lawyers (or have any more education than a high-school diploma or GED). They run in open elections every 4 years. As a result, as the election gets closer, there is no longer any point to actually having the probable cause hearing, or arguing to lower a client's bail, which usually is set sky-high to begin with or denied altogether.

The district court judges (the courts of general jurisdiction) are a little better. They, at least, are required to have law licenses. They are determined by an odd mixture of appointment and election. They are initially appointed by a selection committee, which gives a list to the governor's office, and the governor appoints who he wants. The first election cycle thereafter, the judge runs in open elections, and for "retention" (a yes or no vote) every 4 years afterwards. I guess this system was set up in the hopes of getting the best of both worlds in terms of election vs. appointment. However, it's still extremely political. The reporters tend to show up more in court as Election Day approaches, and no judge wants to see his name in the paper next to a story about releasing criminals or rampant crime.

I so dislike politics! I would think there would be some way judges could just look at case and the law, and make his decisions only based on those things, without thinking about what the paper would say, or what the public thinks. When has the public ever understood the law? It's arcane and picky, with all kinds of nuances that escape the understanding of anyone not trained in it. This is why one must be licensed before practicing.

But, alas, if judges were not elected, they would have to be appointed. This would mean we could never get rid of a bad judge, and they would never be answerable to anyone except their political cronies. So, I will wait out this storm, and, come November 8, many judges will find Motions to Review Conditions of Release on their desks.

Sunday, October 29, 2006

Public Pretender

As I sadly have no baseball games to watch as a result of the most fantastic example of crash-and-burn I have ever witnessed in the Word Series, I have been amusing myself by keeping up with the public defender vs. private attorney debate on the blogosphere, and here, and here ,and don't forget this one, all brought on by this article. Rather than commenting on everyone else's blogs (although check out some of the comments already there, they're pretty good), or on this singularly uninformed woman's article (she seemed to get quite snippy at the comments of others), I figured I would say what I think in my own way.

I think people should know something of what they are speaking about before purporting to give advice on a topic. Especially legal advice. After all, this is what lawyers are for. This woman seems to be something of a cross between Martha Stewart and Dear Abby, given her other articles, e.g. edible craft projects for kids and tips for washing walls. Her knowledge of public defenders and criminal defense in general can be seen from the title of her article, "Should I Hire a Public Defender?" One does not hire public defenders, as they are free by definition. While different jurisdictions have different rules about qualification for a public defender, they are required not to charge people with no money to pay them. One of my favorite lines was, "Unless you want to risk spending time in jail, hire a lawyer directly, even if it means making payments to the lawyer, charging the expense, or borrowing the money to secure good legal help." Now, if a person charged with a criminal offense actually has any of those options open to them, they are obviously not indigent, and therefore should not have the services of a public defender in the first place. Additionally, if they are not facing the risk of jail time, they also are not entitled to free legal representation. I would also like to know her basis for the assertion that, "Since a public defender is paid by the state, a public defender isn't earning as much as a lawyer hired directly. A public defender earns about $65 an hour on average." If anyone knows any public defender making that much, could they please let me know where they are working so I can apply with that office? Now, I'm pretty bad at math, but according to my off-the-cuff guess, that's at least three times what I make.

The article then goes on to say what we in the profession are used to hearing: "Public defenders push their clients to plead guilty, even when guilt is in question. A client pleading guilty is an easy case for a public defender." Now, obviously, a case that results in an early plea is an easier case and takes up much less time than a case that goes to trial, especially if it goes to trial with many witnesses and exhibits. It's not just an easier case for a public defender, it's an easier case for any attorney. The difference is this: We get paid the same, whether we spend all weekend preparing a case for trial, or if it pleads. I have told my clients in the past, especially on cases where there really isn't a viable defense, but he's not that thrilled with the plea offer, that I honestly don't care whether we have trial or not. I like trials. This is part of why I do this. On the other hand, private attorneys charge by the hour. If your case goes to trial, he gets more money. But usually not enough more to make it worth while spending the billable hours on a drug possession case, when he could be doing a will, or a divorce, or a bankruptcy for which he gets a flat fee and they take about 10 minutes. Further more, if you can't afford to pay him enough to make it worth his while to do the trial, see how fast you end up pleading! Or he'll withdraw from representing you.

Now I know some public defenders who do push clients to plead guilty. They put in their 8 hours, and take home their paycheck like this was some kind of factory. I know public defenders who haven't had a trial in 3 years. I also know private attorneys who behave this way. They take all they can get from the client on retainer, spend 10 minutes with them going over they plea, and then 10 more doing the plea, and then they're done. I've known private attorneys who promise people that if they are hired, they can get the defendant out of jail.

All this being said, I've never felt offended by a client who asks if I will fight for them. He has a right to know. I've never felt offended when a client hired private counsel. I have felt sad on occasion, because I knew what kind of lawyer he hired, but never offended. One of my sweetest juvie clients came into my office for his initial appointment with his mother. The case was going to trial because both the kid and the mother were adamant that the kid was innocent, and he probably really was. His mother kind of grilled me, but in a nice way. She asked me how long I'd been practicing law, how many trials I'd done, and things like that. She asked me forthrightly whether it would be better for her son if she hired a private attorney. I told her it depends on the attorney. I also told her that yes, I do have many clients, and it sometimes does take a while to return phone-calls, etc. If what she wanted was daily updates on the status of the case, I cannot provide that. But I will take the case to trial, if that is what the son wants, and I will prepare for trial, and do everything I can do to see that we win. I then went into specifics on the steps I would take on her son's case. She was happy with that explanation, and we did win the trial. Now it is true that I'm not the best at the hand-holding aspect of this job. I'm simply too busy. But I don't hold it against someone if they think that is what they need. Or if they think an attorney they pay will work harder for them.

What does really tick me off about this public pretender reputation is when people who should know better spread this around. There was a incident not too long ago in which a well-know private attorney informed a full courtroom that the reason one of my clients was in jail was because she hadn't hired him, but had me. And I was only a public pretender. I honestly thought I was going to slap the man! It also looked like the judge (who likes me) was considering hitting him as well.

Saturday, October 28, 2006


I was wondering this week why it is that public defenders are always blamed when things do not go smoothly. I mean, it is hard to negotiate a plea bargain in advance of trial when the prosecutor refuses to return phone-calls until the week of trial. Nonetheless, it is somehow my fault when we must schedule a change of plea the day before trial. When the State provides a witness list with 6 new witnesses the week before trial, and I request a continuance to allow time to speak to them, the Judge becomes angry that I did not interview them earlier and denies the continuance. He then tells me, when I file a motion to exclude the new witnesses as they were not timely disclosed that I filed the motion in bad faith! When my client wants his day in court on a case he is likely to lose, the fact that the judge and the DA must "waste" time on the trial is my fault. Don't I know that my job as a public defender is to brow-beat my client into taking a plea that he doesn't want to? When the judge schedules trials every day for 2 weeks, it's my fault that he has to have trial every day! When the prosecutor submits incorrect paperwork to the court, it's my job to fix it. When the court loses track of a case and it takes forever to get resolved, it's my fault for not bringing it to the Court's attention. Never mind the fact that it was never my case to begin with. When a defendant never applies for a public defender, and does not come to court, it's somehow my job to get him notice for the next court date. Forget the fact I haven't got the foggiest notion where he might be or how to get a hold of him. When 10 new cases are added to the morning docket a half hour before court, it's my job to handle the cases for the attorneys who are not present because they had no idea those cases were going to be called. When the psychologist who does our competency evaluations is slow in getting the reports finished because she was in a car accident and required several surgeries, it's my job to get the reports to the court in a week, or else the court will hold the hearings anyway. Because, of course those public defenders are always raising competency to play some kind of game.

It's just that I get so tired of doing my job in addition to so many other people's! I wish I could just answer for things that are within my control, instead of answering for other people all the time. I mean how is the court's calendar my problem? How am I supposed to get prosecutors to produce discovery and negotiate pleas with me in a timely fashion when they can't manage to look at their files more than a week before trial? Why am I held to answer for how other attorneys handle their cases? How is any of this my fault? Why must I spend half my time trying to fix all of this?

Well, that was quite the rant. I'll be better tomorrow.

Thursday, October 26, 2006

Well, I did it!

So, at the staff-meeting on Tuesday, I was actually able to explain a little bit on how to do competency cases. I made hand-outs of FAQ's and didn't even get corrected too much. My main concern was that the more experienced attorneys in our office from other jurisdictions would interrupt frequently and correct me with incorrect information. Fortunately, this did not happen as often as I feared it would, and when it did, I was able to cite current law about why I was right and they were not. The best part was that I was able to do this in an appropriately respectful manner, so that they did not think I was just being uppity. All in all, it went much better than I feared.

Another good thing occurred when one of our newbie attorneys got her first competency case and made contact with the client's caseworker. The caseworker, it turns out, is involved with the beginnings of a state-wide coalition of various court, law enforcement, and mental health agencies to try to find a solution to this problem of the mentally ill who are indigent and keep ending up in the court system. The newbie gave my name to the guy and I am hoping to be able to get involved in trying to address some of these issues. You know, I do like helping my clients. But, it is good to sometimes be more involved in the "big picture" when one has the opportunity.

Now, I am going to leave work behind and watch the rest of Game 4 of the World Series! (My word, it looks like the Tigers are ahead 3-1 at the end of the 3rd inning!)

Saturday, October 21, 2006

Me, the Teacher?

As a result of my last post, and the various helpful comments on it, I have been thinking more about my competency cases. Our competency section of the criminal code is quite confusing and not well written. None of the DA's seem to have a firm grasp on how it works, and never seem able to prepare the various orders required for different phases in the proceedings correctly. We've had people hanging out in jail for extended periods after the judge decides to send them to the mental hospital waiting for the DAs to write an order that is acceptable to the hospital. These types of cases also seem to confuse the court staff, because it seems they open a new civil case every time competency is raised in a criminal case already in District Court. This means that once the competency issue is decided and the criminal case either continues or is dismissed, the civil case just hangs out on the court docket indefinitely. In addition, when I was going through the cases transferred to me from an attorney who left our office, I ran across evidence that he had only the vaguest idea what competence to stand trial means, never mind the proper procedures he should have followed in the process. After talking to various other attorneys in our office, it became clear to me that I seem to be the only lawyer in our office with a good understanding of both what competence to stand trial is, and how to proceed when this becomes an issue.

I therefore, for better or worse, volunteered to give a sort of mini-tutorial to our office on how to handle competency cases. Perhaps once our attorneys all understand how this works, we can get these cases dealt with in the proper way, rather than this hit-or-miss approach that seems to occurring now. In addition, maybe we can get the new judge to understand how this works also, and in this way avoid these unnecessary status conferences she has been scheduling to find out why these cases seem to take forever. There is even an off chance we could avoid our clients being in limbo indefinitely while waiting for the proper paperwork to be filed, or having their cases take forever due to competence being raised when there was no need for it to have been.

This all seems good on paper (or the computer screen). I guess we'll just have to wait and see what happens. Now all I have to do is try to find a way to explain to 10 lawyers (most of whom think they know more than me) how this all is supposed to work. Wish me luck!

Wednesday, October 18, 2006


In my line of work, I come into contact with a fair amount of people who are mentally ill. It may surprise some people that this is the case, but in a state like New Mexico, services for the mentally ill are extremely limited, especially if they are indigent. Thus, many people who are bi-polar, schizophrenic, and mentally retarded end up in the court system. They get arrested when, for example, they are asked to leave a restaurant and will not do so because they believe they own the restaurant. Or, they get into a fight with the manager of the restaurant because they believe the manager is trying to poison them. Or, the police try to write them a ticket for pan-handling but they believe the police officer is going to shoot them, so they fight with the police officer. Or they just simply have nowhere to go and no way to get there, so they are arrested for loitering.

Generally speaking, I like my "crazy" clients. They generally aren't what one thinks of as criminals. And, even if they are with it enough to figure out who I am, they like that I am trying to help them, even if they can't figure out what I actually do for them. The idea that someone is on their side is usually fairly foreign to most of my mentally ill clients.

Under the Constitution, and the laws of New Mexico, a person cannot stand trial if they don't have a sufficient concept of what is going on, or if they are not grounded in reality sufficiently to help their attorney. If they think I am a member of an anarchist society the purpose of which is to hurt them in some way, or if they have no idea (and cannot learn) that the reason that man on the tall throne is wearing a dress is that he is the judge, the State is prohibited from proceeding in the criminal matter. When this occurs the judge can either dismiss the criminal case, or send the defendant to the state mental hospital to be "treated to competence." Usually, the "treatment" consists of medicating the person (with or without his consent) until either he is capable of understanding what's going on or 9 months have passed and the person still cannot understand the proceedings or assist his attorney. Either way, the person then is sent back to jail and the judge can do one of four things: He can dismiss the case if the person remains incompetent to proceed. He can proceed with the case if the person is now competent. He can commit him "civilly" to the state mental hospital, i.e. with no disposition of his criminal case, if he remains incompetent but is dangerous. Or, if the client remains incompetent and is charged with one of 8 very serious crimes, the judge can have a mini-trial about whether the person committed the crime he's charged with and sentence him to the "criminal" side of the mental hospital if found guilty.

The problem is this: If the criminal case is ultimately dismissed, the court no longer has authority over the client. The court cannot supervise the person to help him apply for disability, get to a doctor, get his medication, check that he's taking his medication, or find a place to live. The client is back in the same position he was in when he picked up the criminal charges in the first place, whether for things like loitering or vagrancy, self-medicating with illegal drugs, or wandering into other peoples' houses thinking it was their house.

Even if the person becomes competent through this process, either by a trip to the mental hospital or just getting on medications while in jail, there's definitely no guarantee that he will remain on his medications. I had one client that was fine when she got back from the mental hospital, so the judge let her out as soon as she got back and ordered the criminal case to proceed. She immediately quit her meds, and picked up new charges. So, before the case could progress through the system at all, she was incompetent again, and is now set for another trip to the hospital. This could go on indefinitely! And it probably will.

I like my incompetent people. But there has to be some way that we can get services in Podunk, New Mexico so indigent mentally ill people can get medication, stay on medication, and not have to resort to stealing or pan-handling for their livelihoods!

I mean I've had one guy three different times in 4 years. When he's off his meds, he beats up his girlfriend and the cops when they come to arrest him. His girlfriend can keep him on his meds for about nine months at a stretch. After that, he either picks up battery charges against his girlfriend or the cops. Then he goes to jail. Then he goes to the hospital. Then he comes back from the hospital and his case gets dismissed, because if the medicate him to the point he's not talking to invisible people, he's unable to sit through court. Then he stays on his meds for a while. Then he gets off them. Then he picks up new charges. Repeat process ad nauseum.

It's so frustrating that the "system" is unable to cope with this poor guy, and all my other clients like him.

Monday, October 16, 2006

Making Do

One think I've noticed since becoming a public defender is that one is always making do with less than optimum circumstances. There are always too many clients and not enough resources. This can be quite frustrating. A case in point: Last week our server went out. We save all our documents to the server, rather than to the hard-drive, so that we all have access to each other's old motions. However, without a server, we had to rewrite whatever we needed like stock motions for transport, continuances, jury instructions, and the like. In addition, the printer runs through the server, meaning without the server, we could not print anything. Thus we couldn't file anything anyway, even if we did manage to complete it. Add to it, the server makes this high-pitched, continuous, beeping noise when it is not working. It drives one insane! We finally thought we were out of the woods when the IT guy showed up Thursday to fix it and our files were re-loaded to the server from the back-up on Friday at about 4:30.

Our momentary bliss, however, was not to be. I come in after court this morning to the familiar high-pitched beeping noise. Now, not only is our server down, but something is up with the T1 line as well, meaning we have no access to the internet. So, when our clients ask when their court date is, why they got picked up on a warrant, whether the judge granted their motion, or any other thing that they like to call and ask about, no one can tell them! The receptionist cannot even tell them who their attorney is!

This in addition to the fact that we have been waiting for phones for 2 new attorneys and an intern for 2 months, we've been out of yellow pads and accordion files for 3 months, and personnel has switched to computer-based time-sheets that can never manage to pay anyone the proper amount.

Now that I have vented a while, I feel better. On the plus side, I have had lots of time to file my files, put the papers into the files, return various phone-calls, and catch up reading the bar-bulletin. If only that insane beeping noise would stop.

An Update:

We finally have a server and the internet! Will wonders never cease. This, of course, doesn't fix the shortage of pens, yellow pads, phones, or the paychecks that keep getting messed up. But it is progress!

Saturday, October 14, 2006

A Foul Weather Fan: an Update

The Tigers are going to the World Series!!!! Who can beat a 3-run homer in the bottom of the 9th?

8 Ways to Make a Difficult Job More Difficult: or 8 Ways to Turn a Law Office into a Middle School

1. Come to the office approximately one week out of every 4, and get angry with the entire office when you feel like you are left out of the loop.

2. Listen to no one at the office except for the one person who blows everything out of proportion so that you think that the entire office is collapsing when, in fact, it is not.

3. When people try to tell you that the entire office is not collapsing, yell at them for wasting your precious time, which should be spent fixing problems that are not there or dealing with cases that you delegated to someone else.

4. When employees do come to you with a real problem, yell at them for complaining too much and avoid fixing the problem until it becomes impossible to avoid.

5. When there is a problem with another employee, speak about it with the one person who can do nothing about it and thereby ensuring that the problem never gets taken care of.

6. Never listen to suggestions about how to solve problems, and instead throw up your hands and resign yourself to the fact that no problem will ever be solved.

7. When you come up with a brilliant new plan to make everything work better, and other people explain to you certain problems with your plan, ignore the nay-sayers and go ahead with your plan anyway. This way when your plan fails, you will be able to blame it on people not being behind your plan.

8. Above all, never try to solve problems yourself. This both ensures that there will always be a problem to complain about, and that there are plenty of other people to blame for not solving the problem.

Friday, October 13, 2006

A Foul Weather Fan

Yes, I am a sports fan. All sports. Football, baseball, hockey, and basketball. Possibly because one of my earliest memories was watching football on Sunday afternoons with my father. I liked football best because there is more action involved than baseball, and it was easier for a four-year-old to see what was going on than with basketball. All those tall people crashing into each other was hard for me to sort out at that point. With football, though, a four-year-old can tell that where the clump of people are on the ground is how far the ball got, and the goal was to get to the pretty colored part at the end of the field. Besides, the nice men in the stripy shirts put the ball right there between each play for the camera to see.

One drawback to living in New Mexico is that there are no sports here. So, I continue to cheer for the teams I grew up cheering for. The home team! Unfortunately, the "home" is in Michigan, where the only routinely good sports team plays hockey. They don't tend to televise (or care at all about) hockey in New Mexico. Nonetheless, I continue to watch football whenever I can, and groan at the fact that the Lions seem unable to win a single game. I look for the scores of the Pistons and Tigers in the paper every week and cheer when they break .500. (The Pistons tend to be somewhat hot-and-cold, and the Tigers tend to be plain horrible.)

Wonder of wonders, miracle of miracles!! The TIGERS! The very ones that my grandfather called "that bunch of clunky lunk-heads!" (Well since that was fifteen years ago they aren't really the same ones, but they still tend to play like a bunch of clunky lunk-heads.) The Detroit Tigers are now one win away from the World Series! I can actually cheer for them! Out loud, and in public! They put the games on t.v. and I can watch them. This year was the first year I actually watched a baseball game all the way through since the late 1980's.

It's kind of nostalgic, really. I used to watch baseball games on Saturdays at my grandparents' house. My grandfather drank Old Milwaukee and I drank coke. My grandmother made popcorn in a big pan and put lots of butter and salt in it. My grandfather got the great-big bowl, and I got a little one. At that time, I knew almost the entire line-up of the Tigers. Somewhere in that time two Tigers had over 50 home-runs in one year: Mickey Tettleton (catcher) and Cecil Fielder(1st base). Alan Trammel (shortstop) had one of the best batting averages in the majors.

I now know why baseball is always so popular. It really does make you feel like a kid. It takes you back to summers spent outside at the playground. Getting to stay up late for church picnics or softball games. A time when a hot-dog was absolutely the most wonderful food, and popcorn was a treat.

Well, here's to the Boys of Summer!

An Addendum to a Note

Once again the filters on our computers at work leave me in a state of confusion. Inexplicably, I can now get to the blog every time (well, since yesterday, anyway) but apparently the headings in the sidebar are blocked. Not the links, just the headings. It leaves these white boxes, instead of "Other blogs" or "Recent posts," or whatever. Perhaps the words are the problem, or the font? No telling. That's the State of New Mexico in all its technological glory! I give up. But at least I don't have to waste time trying to figure out what happened to the code, since they appear on any other computer I use!

A note

No, I am not sure what happened to the headings in the sidebar. I have not had a chance to fix them, but will try to get to it this weekend. Until then, use your imaginations! Also, I have not posted as much as I would like this week due to the fact our computers at work have been subject to massive filtering efforts as well as server problems. Whether I can get to my blog seems to be dependent upon the weather.

Sunday, October 08, 2006

A Disclaimer

It occurs to me, that some people who find my blog may be expecting something different than what is here. Let me explain:

I am a public defender, and very proud of it. I love what I do, and would not do anything else for any money. I do what I do because it is in me to do it. I've known it is what I was meant to do since the age of 13, an age where most kids do not know what a public defender is. My work controls much of my thoughts, emotions, and time.

However, there is much more to me than being a public defender. This is a blog about my life, hence the title, not only my job. Being a public defender has formed and shaped much of who I am, and will continue to do so. It does not encompass all of who I am. Therefore, do not be surprised when the occasional political rant appears, or I digress about other things that are important to me. I hope that this does not discourage anyone from reading what I have to say. That being said, I will continue to post what I like, whether it is related to being a public defender or not. I began this blog for myself: to say what I want to say, with little thought to making any type of public statements or pleasing anyone else. If anyone doesn't like what I have to say, or is offended by it, I am truly sorry. You have a right not to like it. But I also have a right to write it.

Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of
religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble...

U.S. Const. Amend. I

Saturday, October 07, 2006

The Fence

Would you like to know why this latest development in the "immigration problem" bugs me so much? One reason is that for the past six or seven months, those in Washington have behaved as though this immigration dilemma is some newly discovered crisis! It is as though the fact that people from all over the world are desperately trying to get into this country is something they personally discovered and that this had never occurred before September 11, 2001.

Immigration was a large part of the political scene as early as the 1820's. It was thought that the United States would be overrun by those from other countries. It was feared that such an influx of people would destroy the economy by providing cheap labor (thereby taking jobs that those born citizens "deserve") and draining the food supply and that, as a result, the country would be unable to sustain itself. It was also feared that the influx of impoverished people would result in rampant crime. Sound familiar? This was 190 years ago! None of these doomsday scenarios have happened yet. I don't see any reason to believe that all of a sudden this country will collapse as a result of a growing immigrant population.

Here's another reason this fence idea bugs me. Even if a mass exodus from Mexico and other Central and South American countries to the United States were to occur, and even if the result would be a complete destruction of this country as we know it; what makes anyone think a fence will stop it? Would it have stopped the airplanes on 9/11? People now are so desperate to cross the border that they are willing to risk being shot by border guards, dying of starvation and thirst crossing the desert, and being robbed, raped, or killed by coyotes. If people are that desperate to come into this country now, they will find a way or die trying, fence or no fence.

My question is this: What is so wrong with the people who are trying to come to this country that the greatest country in the world cannot accommodate them? Are they not people, same as any citizen of this country? Don't they also have the same inalienable rights that we do? When that phrase was written into our Declaration of Independence, no one was a born citizen of this country. This country did not exist! All were citizens of a different country. Wasn't the point and purpose of this country to allow a place for everyone to try to find a better life? Including the Pilgrims at Plymouth Rock, Irish trying to escape the potato famine, Southeast Asians trying to escape their war-torn countries, those from behind the Iron Curtain, and everyone else who comes to this country just looking for a better life.

"Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free!"

Thursday, October 05, 2006

My Good Deed

Today, I helped someone that I didn't have to, that wasn't my client, it's just that she needed help. Maybe that's why I got into this business in the first place.

This lady shows up in our office, all in a flummox. She had a warrant from 2002 on a case that should have been dismissed in 2000 and was pending extradition from Arizona (where she now resides) on that warrant. So, in a nutshell, she needed the warrant from 2002 got rid of so she doesn't have to sit in jail in Arizona waiting for New Mexico to come get her when she was here in New Mexico to try to get the matter (that she had no idea was still around) resolved.

So, I spent this afternoon calling the court here, calling the court in Arizona, calling the sheriff's office in Arizona, driving her to the court here, arguing with the judge here, and faxing an Order Quashing Warrant back and forth to everyone, all to get this poor lady out of having to sit in an Arizona jail for 30 days. In the end, the judge here quashed the warrant, the Sheriff's Deputy (a very helpful woman!) promised to dismiss her extradition case in Arizona and get her off the Arizona judge's court list for tomorrow, and she won't have to go to jail either here or in Arizona.

This makes me feel good. She wasn't my client, but I helped her anyway. I fixed her problem. She was so appreciative she almost cried. And she was trying so hard to do the right thing. Maybe this is why I do this after all.


Yesterday was a day of multitasking. While this word is frequently over used, trust me, I'm using it correctly!

Yesterday begins with probable cause hearings in Magistrate Court. Most of those set do not happen for a variety of reasons. As I only had one client with two cases, I assumed I would be finished by 9 or 9:30. Ten at the latest, if the DA is slow to make a decision. This would leave me plenty of time to prepare for whichever of the two trials set for today was going. They were in front of the same judge, so both of them couldn't go. The DA at magistrate court immediately agrees to dismiss one case if my client waives the hearing on the other. This seems fair to me. The one he's willing to dismiss is completely silly and my client is caught on video in the other. Also the DA's witnesses are present and ready to testify.

So, that being resolved (or so I thought) I see two DA's that I have been trying to get to speak to each other for the past six weeks in the courtroom. The reason I had been trying to get them to speak to each other is that one of my clients has two cases, one with each prosecutor, and we would like a plea deal that covers both cases. Preferably one that involves pleading to only one felony. One of the cases was set for trial today. So, I talk to one DA, that one says to talk to the other, the other one directs me back to the first! Finally, all three of us get a plea deal worked out. It wasn't what I'd hoped for, but it would do.

Next task: To see about getting rid of the trial setting for today. So a phone-call to the court clerk to see if we can set a change of plea prior to trial at 8. She wants a promise that my guy will plead. However, I don't know at this point, as I can't speak to him about the plea until I can get to the jail and I'm still in court. Furthermore, I can't speak to him at all without an interpreter, seeing as he speaks only Spanish and the only Spanish I know is "come to court Monday at 8:00," and other necessary phrases. I certainly can't explain a plea to him, never mind all the rights you give up when taking a plea. So, the clerk says we leave the trial setting and change his plea at that time, assuming he still wants to do it, otherwise we have the trial. She had a note in the file that the interpreter was informed about the trial date.

Meanwhile, back at the Magistrate Court, my client decides he does not want to waive the hearing without some guarantee that he's getting out of jail, regardless of the video. I argue with the prosecutor and the judge about getting him out of jail, but his bail remains the same. Thus, the prosecutor will not dismiss the silly case, and we let the judges know we need hearings on both of his cases. Naturally, he has two different judges, one on each case. Also, I now find out that neither the DA nor the police have the video, which they need to ID my client. They "can get it" while we do the hearing on the other case

As this is occurring, I see the interpreter at court. She wants to know whether the trial is happening today, because she is interpreting in another court on the other side of the state on that day. So another call to the clerk to find out what she wants to do, given that we have no interpreter for either trial or plea today. She schedules the change of plea for 1:30 yesterday. I say I assume the interpreter can make it, as it's already about 10:00 and the other court is about 10 minutes away. I talk to the interpreter. She can't make it. So I talk to the clerk again. She tells me if I fax over a signed plea agreement, she'll vacate the trial setting. Of course, this still leaves me to find someone to translate the plea offer to my client and go to the jail and get the plea to the court before close of business yesterday.

Back to the Magistrate Court: We have the hearing on the silly case, because the police officer is not back with the video on the other case. We lost, but it was close. I forgot to mention that I did not have any files that day because I completely spaced when I left the office Tuesday, thinking yesterday was Tuesday and that I didn't have court. Fortunately I remembered when I woke up that I had court! In any case, the police officer comes back and informs the DA that the video (which is actually on disc) will not play in a normal DVD player. It will play on the equipment in the police cars and on the equipment it was recorded on, but not in the courtroom. We can't go outside to his police car to watch it because the court's recording equipment cannot be moved out of the court. (They don't record court proceedings with a stenographer anymore, they use digital audio equipment.) So the DA decides, rather than just letting my guy out of jail, that he will try to get the equipment the disc was recorded on brought to the court. This doesn't work, it's the person's day off who can authorize the court's borrowing the equipment. So the judge reschedules the hearing for Friday, within the time-limits, so she doesn't have to let my client out of jail. By this time, it's 1:00.

I make it back to the office by 1:30, giving me an hour in which to get my Spanish-speaking client on the phone from the jail with our receptionist to translate. The jail's phone system is such that we cannot call in and get our clients brought to the phone, we have to get the guard to get them a message to call us. The down side is that assuming the guard actually delivers the message, the entire pod hears this message and calls, once word gets out that I'm in my office. Anyway, after spending 20 minutes on the phone with a different client, I finally get the one I need to speak to. He says he will take the plea, and now my hour's up.

Back to court for a probation violation hearing at 3:00. On the way there, it occurs to me that I haven't heard anything about the other guy whose trial is also supposedly set for today. Come to find out, this one was originally set in error and was re-set. My 3:00 guy doesn't show up. So, while waiting for him, I call to see if our receptionist can meet me at the jail to translate the plea for my other guy. She can't get permission from her boss, so I figure I can get the jail to bring out my guy's friend, who has been translating on the phone for him.

So, I make it to the jail a little before 4, and the jail will not bring my guy's friend. Some kind of odd procedure, I guess, wherein anything that is convenient for us is prohibited. Luckily, one of the nurses at the jail used to be a court interpreter. So, after waiting around for half an hour, she shows up and my guy signs the plea. I tried to get the jail to let me use their fax machine to get the plea to the court, but that is not possible either. For whatever reason. So I lead-foot it back to the office, get there at 5 til 5 and fax the thing!

So, that is the R-r-r-rest of the story about how my 2 trials today did not actually happen and I learned the art of multitasking. As well as putting a heck of a lot of minutes on my cell phone. (Our office is too poor to get us cell phones.)

Monday, October 02, 2006

A Normal Day (Finally!)

Yes, I do occasionally have them! Nothing too catastrophic happened, and nothing spectacular happened. Just your standard going to court, listening to clients, and pestering prosecutors and probation officers.

In court, I got one of my clients sentenced. Normally not great since he got sent to prison, but since he'd been waiting to be sentenced since mid-July and had mandatory time coming to him, it was quite a relief. I got another guy out of jail, and did lots of re-setting of things. None of my clients was rude to either me or the judge, which is always a plus. I had a suppression hearing, which I lost, but it wasn't that unexpected. The hardest part was actually getting the judge to give the basis of his ruling, since he rambled a bit and got himself side-tracked. I have a fair chance to win on appeal, and the guy's out of jail. And he actually showed up to the hearing, which is always a question-mark in my line of work. Both the judges I saw today were in a fairly good mood.

At the office I actually made it through my phone-calls without any of my clients cussing me out. I also was able to remain patient with all of them, while explaining for the fourteenth time what was happening in their cases. And no one cried at me or yelled at me. I was also able to get through almost my entire stack of paperwork and get them into their appropriate files. (It's been a while since I've seen my desk.)

This was my day. While it may not seem normal to some of you, it is quite uneventful for me. Excitement and trials are fun, but it's nice to get back into some sort of rhythm. I don't expect this to last too long. Especially since I have 2 trials set for Thursday. I'll enjoy it while it lasts.

Saturday, September 30, 2006

Of Politics and Prisoners

As November approaches, politics becomes unavoidable. Politicians want to help everyone: children, the elderly, and the poor. What's the one thing that everyone wants? It's not money or power. Everyone wants to feel safe. Safe from crime, safe from terrorism. Safe from anything that might hurt them. I want to be safe. I do not want to be the victim of crime or terrorism. So our elected officials answer the call. They propose "tough on crime" legislation and "homeland security" legislation. Our governor even ranted and railed against our state legislature a few months back for being too slow to pass some of his tough on crime legislation. I understand. I do not like crime. However, I'm not willing to give up the rights that we, as citizens of this country and state, have in exchange for being safe. We have the right to be protected from unreasonable searches and seizures. We have the right to confront and cross examine our accusers, and we have the right to be innocent until proven guilty beyond a reasonable doubt. I value and cherish these rights, and I am not willing to give them up even if it means giving up a little security.

How is it we have these rights? Our forefathers believed that everyone had these rights. "All men are created equal, and are endowed by their creator with certain inalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness." These rights are inherent in us, as human beings. Neither criminals nor terrorists are excluded.

Our governor's big "tough-on-crime" agenda focuses on DWI and sex crimes. Therefore, it is now common practice for police to pull you over in your car and conduct a DWI investigation when the only evidence they have is an anonymous tip that a "vehicle matching the description" is being driven by a drunk driver. The tipster does not need to testify in court, or have any basis for his belief that the driver is actually intoxicated. The police officer, however, may testify about the tip. What happened to the right to confront your accusers? What happened to the prohibition against unreasonable searches and seizures?

An 18 year old kid was suspended from school last week because he is charged with a sex crime. He has not even had his first court appearance yet. So now there are noises about passing a law requiring schools to be informed when a student is charged with a sex crime. Not convicted. Charged. What happened to the right to be innocent until proven guilty beyond a reasonable doubt?

This is not limited to the state level. Our President just signed off on a bill establishing military tribunals to try those detained in Guantanamo and elsewhere. Here's the law:

It provides for secret hearings on the guilt or innocence of detainees. It provides that such hearings are not bound by the Constitutional requirement of a speedy trial. (Nor any other Constitutional provision, apparently.) It permits the conviction of detainees based classified information, which they cannot see. It permits the use of evidence (including statements) against the person acquired through coercion. It allows for the use of hearsay. If found guilty, the person can be sentenced to any number of punishments, up to and including death.

For a country and a government that pride themselves on taking the "moral high ground," this is appalling. We are a country that prides itself on its fair and just court system. We would rather let ten guilty men go free, than condemn one innocent man. We accord criminal defendants more rights than any other nation in the world. Where are our Values now? Our belief in the inherent rights of all?

We are currently engaged in two wars in the name of Freedom and Democracy. Perhaps we could start here at home.

Thursday, September 28, 2006

Of Predator and Prey

As mentioned in previous posts, there is a village of prairie-dogs behind our office. If you have never been Out West to see them, prairie-dogs are rodents about guinea-pig sized but without perpetual bed-hair. They live in villages made up of holes and tunnels underground, from which they tend to pop up and down like Whack-a-Moles (the arcade game where you try to bang plastic rodent-looking things on the head with a hammer before they disappear down their holes). Prairie-dogs are much too cute to bang on the head with a hammer. We have at least 20 prairie-dogs happily doing their rodenty things in the field behind our office. We watch them while eating lunch or when we just need to hide from our phone for a few minutes.

We can tell differences between them, and have even named a couple. Chubby is by far the fattest, and he stands guard next to his hole a lot and barks at the others. He pivots about when he gets bored looking in the same direction, and will occasionally make a foray into the tall grass to eat. He is quite brave, and gets very near us. We can sometimes hear him chewing. Pudgy is another one. So named, because we often confuse him for Chubby, except when Chubby appears and is obviously much more rotund. Chubby and Pudgy live in holes very close together, and very near the office.

So yesterday, I was out watching my fuzzy neighbors when a beautiful red-tailed hawk dove for one of them. It was quite impressive. So quick and silent that I didn't notice it until the hawk actually touched down and began hopping, trying to grasp the small rodent in its talons. I was near enough that I could see the brown fuzzy shape running around and between the hawk's feet. I cheered when I saw the frightened prairie-dog disappear into its hole. And again when I saw him re-appear this morning, apparently unscathed.

I wondered later why I was on the prairie-dog's side and why I cheered for him, rather than the hawk. The hawk surely has a right to live and eat, same as anyone else. And I have always admired and been fascinated by birds of prey. He was large and graceful, swift and silent. Beautiful. I didn't want to interfere. I wanted to merely observe the age-old dance between predator and prey. But I was happy that the prey won this dance.

Monday, September 25, 2006

And so, it continues...

And so, today is Monday, and we begin another week: Another set of crises; another bunch of clients calling me about the same things they called me about last week, and the week before that, and the week before that; another day of arguing with the same judges, attorneys, clients, and co-workers who never seem to listen to what I am saying, but argue with me emphatically nonetheless (or completely ignore me); another day of listening to so many other people's problems with no way to solve them. This would be so much easier if there were actually something I could do to fix everyone's life for them. There isn't.

I know that I help. It's what I do: I help. A little. And listen. A lot. There are just so many things that I cannot help with. So many things that I cannot fix. I want to help and fix everything, but it is not possible.

But, I will continue to help, a little, and listen, a lot. And sometimes, it is worth it all. I've had people send me letters or drawings (some of my clients draw really well), and I even had one guy write me a poem. (Not a sappy love poem, a really sincere one.) Sometimes they just say thank you. And then it is all worth it. I changed someone's life. I helped. It doesn't even necessarily happen after I win a trial or something major in their case. It's unexpected.

So, I continue in hope and faith that I haven't helped all I can or fixed all I can, yet. There is more. There is much more that I can do to help.

Saturday, September 23, 2006

A Brief Respite from the Merry-go-round

Well, I made it through two of the more chaotic weeks in recent memory. I am required to do absolutely nothing all weekend. So naturally, I'm in the mood to do laundry, the dishes, clean the bathroom, vacuum, and am even considering yard work. There is one thing I definitely will not do: go to the office! I've been in the past two weekends, and finally, there's nothing there that can't wait until Monday.

In the past two weeks, I had 8 trials set in addition to normal court hearings. I won one, lost one I should have won, and I won part of one that surprised me. Three were dismissed by the prosecutor the day before trial, and two pled on the day of trial. We lost two attorneys in our office, and have been furiously interviewing new candidates. Our boss has been out for most of the past two weeks, and we've been covering his stuff as well as surprises that we didn't know about. There's still the run-of-the-mill internal office political nonsense, but it seems to be simmering down, at least temporarily. (My, how I loathe office politics!)

I'm in an amazingly good mood today. Maybe it's the weather. It's one of those gorgeous fall days where it's cold in the morning, but warm in the afternoon, complete with bright sunshine and the leaves just beginning to turn. The air is crisp and crackly, and you feel like throwing a football around, if you had one and someone to throw it to. All in all, I'd say today more than makes up for the craziness of the past two weeks. I'm perfectly happy and content, and I think I'll watch some football on t.v.

Thursday, September 21, 2006

That black robe

I have been wondering today whether there is some chemical agent contained in the fabric of a judge's robe that changes the personality and even essence of the person who wears it. Perhaps something in the robe creates some type of amnesia, the only symptoms of which are that the wearer forgets completely ever having been a lawyer and what the practice of law is about. There is apparently also something about it that enlarges the only part of the individual not covered by the robe, i.e. the head.

If this is not the case, I am at a loss to discover what would lead a judge, who was once a public defender himself, to the conclusion that a defense attorney's only purpose is to make their clients plead guilty! What would make such a person, whose life-time profession has been the law, believe that a trial by a jury of one's peers is a waste of time? How can it be that a heretofore completely personable and reasonable attorney has suddenly taken to yelling at the attorneys appearing before him when they request that the prosecutor follow the Rules of Evidence and even (gasp) the Constitution?!

I am truly at a loss for any reasonable explanation, so I will stick to my original conclusion: There is something about that black ROBE!

Tuesday, September 19, 2006

And sometimes there are good days!

My guy got discharged from probation and out of jail. He had (only) been waiting for a hearing for 2 months. I *don't* have 2 trials set for the same day. (Thursday). Certain internal office difficulties got ironed out in a very good way. The prairie-dogs and horses that live behind the office were in very good moods. I think it's the weather: cold in the morning and still getting up to 75 in the afternoon.

The prairie dogs are so cute getting all fat and happy in preparation for hibernation. They look happy anyway. They're definitely getting fat. I think prairie dogs hibernate, anyway. I'll have to google it. We have probably 20 of them making a village behind the office since spring. There are also horses and cows in the adjoining field. There's a colt and a filly as well. They're getting almost grown-up size. They were very frolic-y today. It looks like so much fun to eat grass and roll around without a care in the world. I figure if prairie-dogs and horses and cows can all co-exist like this, people will figure it out eventually. Or, if not, watching the prairie-dogs and horses and cows is definitely a happy diversion from life and the law.

All and all, a very positive day.

Monday, September 18, 2006

One thing I've noticed...

Trials are much more fun when one actually has something to say. Seeing the glass half-full, though, I did get a not guilty verdict on the petty misdemeanor. Incidently, the two most wonderful words in the courtroom (if not the entire English language). Not bad, considering my guy confessed. Last week's was better. I got an acquittal on everything. Pretty rare for a drug possession charge!

Anyway, I believe I will now have a well-earned beer and watch a movie that I've seen before.

Sunday, September 17, 2006

Well, I'm on the bandwagon!

I figured that since I've been commenting so much on other people's blogs, it's only fair to give them the same opportunity! So, here it is...

About the title: I am always being asked what I do, and why, and I never seem to have a good answer. I've told various people various reasons why I'm a public defender, and those reasons have all been true. But none of them really answer the question. Possibly I really don't know the answer to that question. But considering that I've been doing this for nearly 5 years with no end in sight, there must be some reason for it!

I mean, it's a fairly thankless job. For example, I spent nearly all afternoon preparing for a trial tomorrow that I'm almost certain to lose. I hate losing, by the way. Even if I win, the guy isn't getting out of jail. He's got another trial set for Wednesday that he is even more likely to lose. One certainly doesn't win popularity contests defending indigent people charged with crimes. No one wants "criminals" to "get off on technicalities." Even in the legal community, public defenders are pretty much tolerated as necessary for the system to function. My own clients would prefer to have a "real" lawyer, rather than me. They want to know whether a "real" lawyer could get them out of jail. I can't tell you how many times I've had to clarify that yes, I am really a lawyer, I did graduate law school, and I do have a law license!

Maybe that's part of why I do it, though. I am needed: To defend people who need defending, and no one else feels they "deserve" it. To ensure that people's rights are not violated, when even they don't appreciate what I do. To not allow our Constitution or the principles of freedom and justice upon which our country was built to be trampled upon for the sake of efficiency or security.

I am a public defender because I care about Truth, Justice, the Constitution (and fuzzy puppies).