Commentary: Public defenders are essential for all of usI recall a particular day many years ago, probably back in the late 1950s, when I was visiting my grandmother. She asked me a question which is often posed to young children. “What do you want to be when you grow up?”
By: Terrence Conkel, The Republican Eagle
I recall a particular day many years ago, probably back in the late 1950s, when I was visiting my grandmother. She asked me a question which is often posed to young children. “What do you want to be when you grow up?”
If you are old enough to remember that time period, you will surely recall the arrival of television and how it had a huge influence on us. In most American homes TV had replaced radio as the main source of nightly news and entertainment. At the time “Perry Mason” was a popular TV show and I often watched it. The show was named after a fictional attorney who represented persons charged with serious crimes, usually murder.
The idea that the hero of the TV show was an attorney helping alleged criminals who were charged with terrible crimes was unusual for those times. The premise of the show ran counter to popular thinking that people charged with crimes were likely guilty and that the sordid role of the defense attorney was to use a sneaky trick to get the case thrown out over a “technicality” or a “loophole.”
Bill of rights
Nevertheless, I enjoyed “Perry Mason.” Mr. Mason was a good deed doer. He took on difficult, sometimes hopeless looking cases. He charged his clients little to nothing. And invariably he would prove his client’s innocence. Like many TV shows then and now, it was high on entertainment, but low on realism.
Probably because of my regular viewing of “Perry Mason,” I told my grandmother that “I am going to be a lawyer.” I recall her disapproving look. After a hesitation she asked me, “Terry, why would you want to help crooks?”
At the time I didn't really have a good reply to her question. However, in my ensuing school years I learned about the Bill of Rights and things such as presumption of innocence, the right to a trial and the right to be represented by an attorney. And I learned that all of us have these rights, whether we are actually innocent or guilty, rich or poor, crook or saint.
As I now look back I remember my grandmother was smart and well read. I believe she also knew about these things, but perhaps she was just hoping I would become a doctor or a minister. If so, I should have pointed out to her that doctors and ministers also help “crooks.”
However, the law became my career and now more than ever I appreciate that our own individual rights are not safe unless we as a society protect such rights for each and every person.
This brings me to the topic at hand, public defenders and why it is so important for all of us to support and maintain a strong public defender system.
The 6th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution provides that in all criminal prosecutions the accused shall have the assistance of counsel for his defense. By 1972 the U.S. Supreme Court had extended this right to any person accused of a crime who could be sentenced to jail or prison. Consequently, the right to counsel applies to all criminal prosecutions, except the most minor traffic and nuisance type charges. Consequently, Minnesota established a statewide public defender system.
Today in Minnesota, public defender work is done through the State of Minnesota Board of Public Defense. Public defenders are full- and part-time state employees who are administered through the state office and through districts which geographically coincide with the state’s 10 judicial districts.
Public defenders are mandated to provide legal services for indigent persons in felony, gross misdemeanor, misdemeanor, juvenile delinquency and child protection cases. In addition the State Public Defenders Office represents some indigent defendants in handling their cases on appeal to the higher courts.
Filling a major need
People are eligible for a public defender if they are receiving low-income government benefits or, considering their liquid assets and income, they are unable to pay the reasonable fees charged by a private attorney. A person requesting a public defender is required to provide information to a judge or court screener who establishes whether he or she is financially eligible for a public defender. Persons receiving a public defender are often court ordered to pay back part of the public cost for providing legal representation.
Public defenders are required to accept all court appointments. They cannot decline to take a case.
It has been estimated that 85 to 90 percent of all persons accused of serious criminal offenses in Minnesota are represented by public defenders. Juveniles who are the subject of juvenile delinquency petitions are represented by public defenders about 95 percent of the time. As a result, public defenders are extremely busy. It is estimated that the public defenders in Minnesota handle nearly double the case loads recommended by national standards.
Public defense in Minnesota is funded by our taxpayers and through a temporary dedicated registration fee imposed on all attorneys. The State of Minnesota Board of Public Defense and all the employees it administers, including attorneys, investigators and staff members, are dependent on the funding allocated to it by the Legislature. Inadequate funding of public defenders would create inequalities that should not be permitted in our system of justice.
Consistent with adequate funding, the judicial system has a duty to effectively screen applications and appoint public defenders only for those clients who are eligible. Likewise, the Board of Public Defense has an obligation to ensure the services of our public defenders are delivered in an efficient and cost effective manner.
Playing a vital role in justice
From a personal standpoint as a trial court judge, the public defenders I see in my court are experienced, dedicated and professional in all respects. Many are attorneys who could likely have a more lucrative and less stressful career in private practice, yet they have a passion for their work. This is not to take away anything from the fine prosecutors and private counsel who also work with me.
However, the public defenders have a particularly difficult task. Their clients are not only poor, but many lack education and skills, have physical or mental disabilities and are addicted to alcohol or drugs. Public defenders regularly deal with difficult clients who often times are under considerable family, economic and personal stress even before they were charged with a crime.
Fortunately, most of us will never be charged with a serious crime and be in need of a public defender.
Nevertheless, each of us should recognize and support the vital role our public defenders serve in a system designed to provide justice for all.
Judge Terrence E. Conkel is assistant chief judge in Minnesota’s First Judicial District.