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.