During last week’s Senate confirmation hearings for Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson, one of the points of attack was her prior work as a public defender. From the accusatory tone of some of the senators, you would have thought she had committed the crimes herself.
But it does not seem that it is the “defender” part of the job title that concerns them – it is the “public” part. You seldom hear the same kind of vitriol directed at lawyers in silk stocking law firms who represent white collar and corporate defendants. Those clients are accused of crimes based on sophisticated fraud schemes, motivated by greed as opposed to need. These defendants can afford to pay huge legal fees, and the attorneys are happy to collect them. As is true in all administrations, many of the former U.S. Attorneys in the Trump administration have moved on to jobs in the private sector representing defendants in white collar crime cases, and the work is considered fully respectable.
Public defenders, on the other hand, are often vilified. According to a Brennan Center report, they are chronically overworked and underpaid. They represent clients for modest pay because they want to protect the rule of law. Many attorneys I know say they choose to work as public defenders because they see their role as safeguarding the Constitution. Unless all defendants have effective advocates to represent them, then those rights will erode for all of us.