A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Courtroom

I can still remember the first appointment I ever had with a client. Having gone through college and law school, been a legal intern, worked as a hiring agent for a temporary labor company and made the move to the west coast, I thought I was prepared. Many people think that lawyers come out of the womb dressed in a suit or skirt, clean around the edges, well groomed and articulate. That could not be further than the truth. As I sat across the table from this first client, two days after making the trip from Kentucky to Oregon, I aimed to keep her from seeing who I really was. I was crossing my fingers that she saw a degree, a suit, a desk and a position of authority. I hope she did not see the recently cut faux-hawk. I prayed she did not see the hole from which I had just removed my cartilage piercing that helped me flirt with girls in law school. I hoped she did not see a kid who was dealing with his own problems. It was important that she meet Justin N. Rosas, Esquire. Attorney at law. With a business card and a haircut.

1,800 or more cases and more than five years have passed since then. I have defended people on accusations as minor as making loud noise to those as serious as child sexual abuse or taking another person’s life. There have been huge victories, great defeats, tense hearings, emotionally packed moments, laughs, tears, and nearly everything imaginable in between. As I look back and think about particular memories, I remember the first few trials I had. I remember how exciting life was as I prepared for my first jury selection, defending an 18 year old from a reckless driving charge for supposedly throwing something out of his window in rage and damaging a California prison guard’s vehicle. I was up against the District Attorney’s legal intern, a battle I could not lose and return to my office with any pride. Thankfully, I returned with my pride and my client’s clean record. As our careers have progressed, that intern has been at the DA’s office as an attorney for years and we try cases against one another that are major felonies.

There are other cases that stick out: helping a mentally handicapped man defeat a DUII accusation for using his prescribed medication, winning a hearing where a judge actually found a police officer to be dishonest and the DA to be unethical in proceeding, helping a person with a lengthy criminal history get admitted into and graduate from family court, winning a felony assault trial for a client with a horrible criminal history who was being picked on for his past mistakes, or the felony DUII trial I felt I should have won before my friend and client was convicted after a three-day trial. These are glimpses of a much more compelling picture that cannot be told through the lens of a particular case.

What it has meant to me to be a public defender is a commitment to defending freedom during constant pressure from all directions. Sure, I have built strong relationships with my clients and had joyous moments with them. Yes, there are a few DA’s and police officers with whom I joke and enjoy my time. Sure, not every moment has been absolute hell. But, make no mistake; this is an epic struggle – similar to tough miles in the sun during a marathon or ultra. The great public defenders around this country deal with relentless aggression and pressure from all sides. Pressure to get cases moving and close them both from their offices and the court system. Pressure to spend fewer resources investigating or mitigating a case due to the giant loads. Pressure from clients who distrust public defenders because they are part of the same diseased system that has disenfranchised millions. Pressure from police officers who believe that anyone who would help out “criminals” must be heathens or evil. Pressure from prosecutors pushing their cases who are used to criminal defense attorneys laying down to coercion. Pressure from within to make sure that the best possible results are gotten for every client. And pressure from the Constitution to ensure that, despite the lack of resources, every single person gets represented adequately and appropriately, down to the very last objection to evidence.

I have seen that pressure lead to a lot of things. We all are aware of the turnover that every public defender’s office faces. I have seen depression, the development of family and financial issues, addiction problems and suicide. What you see more often is a descent to defeatist mediocrity, the hallmark of too many lifetime public defenders. Those that stay above that descent are the true champions of our society and there are many. A big part of my growth is being around those champions and having the opportunity to learn from and bounce ideas off of them. The American Bar Association suggests that felony attorneys should handle no more than 150 cases in a year. Misdemeanor attorneys no more than 400. Both of those guidelines are broken in almost every public defender’s office in the country, including in our relatively modernized system in Oregon. In Tennessee, six attorneys handled 10,000 cases a year meaning that they spent less than one hour on each case. This is not a situation where normal people can thrive, where we can keep in check the variety of forces in our society that put more people in jail than any other country in history, or where we can make sure our Constitution is defended and upheld. It is a situation where only the toughest and strongest of people shine – and they do so at grave consequences to their well-being and finances.

As I started working through these pressures, I learned a lot about the law, a lot about courtroom participation and something deeply philosophical. In those hearings, trials and discussions I was having, I slowly began to find myself, became less guarded, and that kid with the faux-hawk who loved Radiohead and R.E.M., who stayed up discussing philosophy or who loved to debate politics came back out – he got upset, he became passionate, and my suit and degrees could not repress him. Trainings like OCDLA’s Trial Skills Seminar and the National Criminal Defense College freed me further. Instead of sitting across the desk from my client’s as an institution, I started to reach across the table as a fellow human being, always with an eye towards the law and the best legal resolution possible. I started to try cases without being worried about the jury seeing my pock marks. Sure, I used the intimidation of my office when I felt it was necessary or helpful, but I began to think back about those first appointments and realize something important.

What it means to me to be a public defender, a trial attorney, and a staunch defender of personal liberty is a lesson in freedom and taking license in life to be your own person. It takes toughness, sure – you spend more time in jail and court than the rest of the community’s lawyers combined - but that toughness cannot be contrived or faked. It takes sensitivity, time after time, to personal tragedy and consequences. It takes graciousness – an ability to see people with all of their poor decisions and still move on to deal with them as individuals who deserve respect. And it takes the liberty to communicate as a living, breathing human being in situations where remaining human seems impossible. Now, I sit across the desk and I pray my clients are not intimidated by my degrees, that they are not silenced or awed by my suits, and that they do not feel I am part of any system other than to be there for them. Being a public defender has taught me that the only way to fight for freedom is, first, to claim it yourself and then start handing it out everywhere you go. I am grateful to have gained experience in the courtroom, to have built my motions database, to have networked and served our community – but I am even more grateful to have found myself in that process. Without walking that path, my time here would have been a failure.