It’s been years since anyone at the New York State Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers gave any thought to why the association was formed, why it exists, what purpose it serves. It’s slogged along, from scandal to pointlessness, collecting its rather steep dues from lawyers who have some vague sense that they ought to belong, because of the name if nothing else.
If other criminal defense lawyers want to piss their money away on the NACDL, on wedding dresses and match.com for the former executive director, on a listserv where answers require the purchase of Gary Muldoon’s commission-paid book, on a paid lobbyist who duplicates the efforts of other organizations yet has accomplished nothing, so be it. It’s no skin off my nose.
The one redeeming feature of the NYSACDL was the Annual Dinner, a chance to see old friends, talk shop and enjoy the camaraderie of trench lawyers. Historically, the association gave out awards at the dinner to either the biggest names it could get it’s hands on as a draw, or to those who would bring in a couple of tables of paying guests. Either way, it was all about money, but at least the choices gave a hat tip to the association’s putative purpose by honoring criminal defense lawyers and judges.
No more. Proudly displayed on the front page of the NYSACDL website is the anouncement for this year’s main honoree.
For anyone unaware, Bob Morgenthau is the legendary District Attorney of New York County. Morgy is retiring, and his job is going to former prosecutor turned criminal defense lawyer turned prosecutor, Cy Vance. It’s not that Morgy wasn’t a great District Attorney. If there was a DA Hall of Fame, no doubt he would be in it. But this is the New York State Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers, and they are honoring the fellow whose life time achievement is prosecuting people.
Are there no criminal defense lawyers worthy of being the primary honoree? No judges who’ve done anything worth noting? Or has the incoming president lost all sight of why this association exists, preferring instead to bask in the glow of greatness, even if it’s the warmth of the prosecutor?
Will the tables around the banquet room be filled with prosecutors, there to honor their mentor? The NYSACDL had but one hard and fast rule, no prosecutors allowed. Apparently, that’s fallen by the wayside. Perhaps they want to hobnob with the assistants in the hope of getting a better deal on some quickie plea? Maybe they believe that prosecutors are more important than criminal defense lawyers, and want to enhance the dinner with their official presence? Maybe George Goltzer wants to get his picture taken with Morgenthau so he can put it on his wall and impress people?
There is much to commend Robert Morgenthau, who served with honor and distinction. But he has no place being honored by the NYSACDL. Believe me, the District Attorneys Association isn’t going to honor a defense lawyer.
To call this a slap in the face to criminal defense lawyers is to trivialize the significance of this choice. While criminal defense lawyers across the nation stand up for what’s right at grave personal risk, the New York State Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers has chosen instead to bend over and kiss prosecutorial butt. This is a disgrace and an insult to every criminal defense lawyer in New York and elsewhere.
Update: Having heard from numerous folks on the subject, it appears that war has broken out within the association between those who are utterly dismayed by the unilateral decision to ignore, yet again, the exceptional work done by criminal defense lawyers in New York in favor of honoring Morgey, not to mention the absence of a Brennan Award winner (given to a judge) this year and Marshall Award winner, which was initially to be given to a very worthy member of the association but (although the name has now been deleted from the award recipients) will now go to a Biglaw firm for its pro bono work.
It’s not that the Biglaw firm is unworthy of recognition. It is indeed very worthy. But is there not a single criminal defense lawyer in the State of New York who is a member of the association worthy of its recognition? Of course there is. But worthy or not, the NYSACDL won’t give it to you. You may be worthy, but you’re not important enough to make the cut.
More interesting are the reactions. Some are shocked by this mess. Others are appalled by those who are shocked, breaking the tradition of sweeping all nastiness under the rug so members don’t see how the sausage is made and the association can perpetuate its carefully crafted appearance of righteousness. The adage, sunlight is the best disinfectant, comes to mind, but cockroaches just scatter when the light shines on them, and come back out as soon as the light goes away. If the members can’t be bothered to figure out why those who send out their dues bills show them no respect, then they get the association they deserve.