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Ask A Public Defender

The gavel sits in front of House Rules Committee chairman Rep. Jim McGovern (D-MA) during a House Rules Committee hearing on the impeachment against President Donald Trump in Washington, DC.
The gavel sits in front of House Rules Committee chairman Rep. Jim McGovern (D-MA) during a House Rules Committee hearing on the impeachment against President Donald Trump in Washington, DC.

There are only a few jobs defined in the United States Constitution. We think or hear about most of them often. But it often seems like we don’t think about public defenders until it’s absolutely necessary.

Public defenders are attorneys who are appointed to work on behalf of defendants who can’t afford to hire their own representation. But they aren’t always supported in the ways that maybe they should be.

They’re often paid much less than their counterparts in private practice. They can have unimaginably large caseloads. And in states where the role doesn’t exist, sometimes the people who fill in for them aren’t qualified to handle important cases.

In a recent article entitled “Defend the Public Defenders,” law professor Irene Oritseweyinmi Joe outlined their responsibilities:

Working as a public defender can be like walking a tightrope. Attorneys are constitutionally required to provide effective representation to their clients, ethically required to do so as officers of the court, and subject to the ordinary human desire to keep their jobs. Other actors in the criminal process complicate the public defender’s ability to do each of these things. At times, courts set restrictive and unconstitutional bail, show little patience for the time it takes attorneys to investigate and prepare cases, and fail to hold prosecutors accountable. Prosecutors sometimes bring so many cases that public defenders cannot meaningfully represent every client they are assigned, and then use this tactic to move cases quickly through the criminal process. Then, the leaders of the institutions within the executive and judicial branches of government can fire or reassign a public defender when they are displeased with his or her work. It can be a vicious cycle, where a public defender is fighting a battle against the very entity that must provide that public defender with the resources and support it needs to do so. So who defends public defenders when they are faced with serious consequences for challenging the decisions of opposing actors, when those very actors oversee the public-defender institution?

A panel of public defenders answers your questions about the ins and outs of the job.

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