Public defenders are tasked with ensuring the poorest and most vulnerable defendants have their day in court. Sometimes that means swallowing their ideals of social justice.
A recent communiqué from my HR department casually let fall that we’re now a “social justice organization” dedicated to the interests of “the most vulnerable.”
And all these years we thought we were a public defender! We feel like the hero of Kafka’s “Metamorphosis” who woke up one morning to find himself turned into a giant beetle.
As an appellate squawk, we represent people charged convicted of crimes.
Sometimes we think they might be innocent or that what they did shouldn’t be a crime, but we’re still not going to enter them into any “most vulnerable” contest. You want vulnerable, go read the Brooklyn DA’s press handouts about crime victims.
Just kidding, don’t go near them.
As for “justice,” that’s exactly what we’re defending our clients against. “Bringing to justice,” “obtaining justice,” etc. are gassy expressions for prosecution and punishment. The Italians are more candid: giustiziare means putting to death. Tacking “social” onto it doesn’t make it less retributive.
Might as well put a hat on a piranha.
As Hamlet said, “Use every man after his desert and who should ‘scape whipping?” We try to help our clients escape whipping, deserving or not.
How would a defense lawyer look plumping for social justice?
DEFENSE COUNSEL: The machete allegedly found on my client should be suppressed as the fruit of an unlawful search. The officer testified that his only reason for stopping him was that he was wearing a Red Sox cap.
PROSECUTOR: We concede there’s no possible interpretation of the Fourth Amendment that could justify the search. But the defendant had the machete hidden in his jacket while walking around the hallway of a public housing project inhabited by itty-bitty little children, marginalized women and the gaga elderly.
DEFENSE COUNSEL: Golly, I guess the interests of the vulnerable come first.
COURT: You bet. Suppression denied.
DEFENSE COUNSEL: The statute requires the indictment to be dismissed if the People aren’t ready for trial within 180 days without good cause. Since it’s now the 181st day, my client is entitled to dismissal.
PROSECUTOR: We candidly admit the delay is due solely to our laziness and incompetence. But the defendant was caught shooting into the window of a bodega, thereby offending the dignity of huddled masses yearning to breathe free.
DEFENSE COUNSEL: Well, I certainly don’t want to be a xenophobe. We’ll let it go this time.
DEFENSE COUNSEL: I move to preclude any testimony about my client’s prior record, pursuant to People v. Rodriguez.
COURT: What does Rodriguez say?
DEFENSE COUNSEL: How should I know? The point is, my client belongs to a marginalized, powerless, historically underrepresented group.
PROSECUTOR: So does the victim.
DEFENSE COUNSEL: Oh, yeah? What supposedly powerless group does your so-called victim belong to?
PROSECUTOR: Dead people.
DEFENSE COUNSEL: Oh. Okay, you win.
Moral: If you need to wear a halo, don’t go into criminal defense.
Appellate Squawk is the pseudonym of an appellate attorney in New York City, and the author of a satirical legal blog of that name. Readers’ comments are welcomed.