I had the privilege of speaking at the Ashland Film Festival on behalf of the Oregon Criminal Defense Lawyers' Association and was asked to write an article about it for the Oregon Defense Attorney. Below is the text, you can find the link to the newsletter here,
“We must address that there is a crisis within our nation’s system of indigent defense.”
—Attorney General Eric Holder at the 2009 American Bar Association Convention
In April, I had the privilege of representing OCDLA at a discussion following two screenings of “Gideon’s Army” at the Ashland Film Festival.
As you all know, public defense is often as hard as it gets for those in our already strenuous field. High caseloads, mounting student loan debt, and lagging salaries create a crucible from which many attorneys seek to escape. What you may not know is that a
civil attorney, Dawn Porter, was so impressed and engaged by the public defenders she encountered—their care for the Constitution and for principles of social justice—that she set out to make a documentary about them that has now won awards at Sundance and received acclaim around the globe.
The film follows closely the stories of three public defenders in the south. Travis Williams, Brandy Alexander and June Hardwick progress through the daily grind of arraignments and sentencings in front of Dawn’s cameras as they also continue to follow two seriouscases through their resolution.
The film showcases the hard work of Jonathan Rapping—we see him leading an inspirational trial practice clinic for public defenders in the South known as Gideon’s Promise. His program, and those put on by Metropolitan Public Defenders, OCDLA’s Trial Skills College, the National Criminal Defense College and similar training organizations, make us all better attorneys, whether we are teachers or students.
The film pulls no punches—it shows the tough realities of daily practice: a young client’s heart broken when an available resolution to avoid a conviction becomes unattainable and his family cannot afford to post bail; a client interview where an attorney is distrusted
because of a poor perception of a previous public defender; a case where everything is going well gearing up for trial when a codefendant suddenly becomes a state’s witness and a young man is sent to prison instead of getting another opportunity.
Facing the financial strain these young attorneys live under, the film reveals a struggle to uphold lofty ideals and maintain compassion and care for clients at the same time as they count quarters to pay for gas. We see these attorneys burning the midnight oil to earn acquittals. We feel the strain of time with loved ones being put on the shelf while attorneys deal with important cases. From those images and the talent we see in the courtroom scenes, a deep understanding is gained of the passion, skills and beliefs that make up these amazing public defenders.
When I saw the film, it was music to a sore soul—a drink of water in the desert—that led to a few tears. I knew it shared a real piece to everyone in that room of what it means to do criminal defense work. Quite often the question we are asked the most is, “How do you defend those people?” “Gideon’s Army” is a beautiful answer to that question.
After the first screening, the audience stood and applauded when they found out a public defender was in the room. I answered questions for thirty minutes until they closed the theater and walked down the street discussing sentencing policy. Dawn Porter came to the second showing and answered questions with me. She was as inspiring as could be. Many questions were those you might expect: How high are your caseloads? How do you feel about Measure 11? What is different in Oregon than in the film? But the question I hope to leave each of you with as we enter the next 50 years in Gideon’s wake was asked on both nights: What are the top priorities in making this system better?
So, as I write this I ask each of you: What are the top priorities in making this system better, and how can you help achieve those priorities?
Together we will continue striving to make our public defense system the best in the country. If you have time to give to help make that system better—by taking cases, training other attorneys, giving resources to help with extra investigations; or to work in
administration; or if you are already engaged and simply need to continue bringing the same passion and zeal to your work as you did as a young attorney—let us refresh our commitment to the system together.
Gideon calls us to continue to put our clients first. It calls us to ensure an adequate number of well paid, competitive, and compassionate attorneys are taking appointed cases and making this a priority in our communities. And it calls all of us to continue to work and make the next 50 years of Gideon’s promise even better than the first.