Dear Board Members:
I have been working in the Fifteenth Judicial District Public Defender’s Office since August 2015, when I arrived with three other recent law school graduates and new Gideon’s Promise fellows. I chose this office, over another Gideon’s partner-office that had recruited me in a different state, because just from speaking with its chief, Paul Marx, I had a gut feeling that the culture of indigent defense blossoming under his supervision in Lafayette was something that any recent law graduate dedicated to client-centered indigent defense simply had to be part of if given the opportunity.
When I started working here, all of my expectations were confirmed and even exceeded. The lawyers in the office are so dedicated to their clients that they work far in excess of the hours technically required, just, for example, to meet personally with incarcerated clients at sufficient length to demonstrate their trustworthiness and commitment to those clients, or to schedule witness interviews at convenient times for client’s family members. They do these things even in the kinds of cases that lawyers outside of a client-centered culture might not deem sufficiently serious, or headline-grabbing, to warrant more effort than that required to “plead and process” them, perhaps after a brief discussion with the ADA.
It is not an exaggeration to say that every lawyer in our office sees each of his or her clients as an individual, and acts upon that vision to the best of his or her professional capabilities. A fly on the wall of our office hallway would never hear the lawyers or staff complain about the differential between hours worked and actual compensation; it would, however, hear water cooler “chit-chat” about legal strategies, inspirational successes, and disheartening losses. Having previously interned in a public defender’s office in another state, where I had a generally good experience yet was underwhelmed by the office’s ethos regarding the manner in which attorneys would talk about their clients, I know how exceptional this office is: where respect for clients is an unspoken norm, universally and effortlessly obeyed in all conversations in and outside of the office.
One of my responsibilities in the juvenile division is meeting with incarcerated kids before their 72-hour hearings. I see in the faces of these children the relief that comes with their being able to tell their story early in the legal process to someone who is not a parent, a detective, or even a mental health professional trying to evaluate them. The head of the juvenile division in our office is known around court for calling her clients her “kids”; and the feeling of filial trust, even love, is reciprocal. Children whom I interview before 72s often blurt out unprovoked, “Janet is my attorney!” They are eager to make this badge of honor known early in our conversation, partly just to hear me confirm that she is still with our office and will once again be representing them.
I was blown away by Janet’s dedication to visiting incarcerated children when I started going to the detention center; her signature is always on the sign-in sheet, typically in a few places, in between my own. She often calls me early in the morning, long before the work-day officially begins, to ask when I plan on getting myself over to the detention center because a new kid was just brought in. (I say that I was blown away by her dedication not because it has diminished since I started, but because in the time since I started I have seen over and again this level of dedication in all of our attorneys, and I now understand that it is not out of the ordinary here).
One story in particular sticks out in my mind. A juvenile client had been transferred to adult court on three counts of aggravated rape, each carrying a potential life-without-parole sentence. The facts of the case demonstrated a clear instance of disproportionate overcharging by the prosecutor, although that did not diminish the frightening predicament in which this client found himself. But his attorney stuck with him. She met with his family multiple times, fought for an affordable bond, and even successfully petitioned for reasonable amendments to the bond restrictions so that, on one occasion, the child could attend a family event out of state.
It is not hard to imagine another attorney caving early in the case under the prosecutor’s pressure, or out of sheer terror of the charges; but this client was lucky to have an attorney from our office. She fought the prosecutor at every step by filing substantive motions, demonstrating the kind of zealous advocacy that I had until then only read about as an abstract concept in the model rules. Because of her unwavering dedication, this client eventually pled no contest to a non-sex crime, saving him the life-long humiliating punishment of sex offender registration, in exchange for probation and a suspended sentence. This compromise, from three charges each carrying a possible life-without-parole sentence, was a great victory that made me overwhelmingly proud to be on this attorney’s team and part of our office.
Success stories such as this are legion among our attorneys. Collectively they not only represent the pride of our office, but also contribute to the transformation of indigent defense that is happening across our state. Our office is a beacon in this transformation, but current fiscal circumstances remind us of how flickering our light is, that we depend on the support of the Board and other justice stakeholders in Louisiana to prevent our light from being quenched by forces that are blind to the awesome conflagration we have the potential to ignite.
Like everyone who has written to you on behalf of our office, I realize that the decision you have before you is a difficult one. I know that there are pros and cons to be weighed on every side of that decision that implicate the future shape of indigent defense in our great state. I only hope to direct your attention to the unique promise of the Fifteenth Judicial District Public Defender’s Office for bolstering the constitutional right to counsel statewide. This office is deserving of the Board’s special solicitude not only for its own sake, not only to fan the embers of passion for indigent defense that burn within the borders of the Fifteenth District, but for the sake of the shining standard it sets in the struggle to implement a robust right to counsel across all of Louisiana. I ask respectfully that you do whatever you can to save our office.
2015 Gideon’s Promise Fellow
William and Mary Law School Partnership