If you squint a bit, the notion of citizen legislators seems so populist chic. After all, that makes them regular folk like us, and since we’re just the ginchiest, shouldn’t they be too? Except the down side of the concept is that part-time legislators get paid part-time salaries, and need to work for a living if they’re going to get their kids that shiny new iPad that all the other kids have. Would you really want their children to be denied?
So Mark J. Grisanti, R-Buffalo, got himself a pretty good gig for a lawyer, that likely went a long way toward supplementing his meager state salary. From the Buffalo News:
So when police raided the house Feb. 27 and confiscated $50,000 worth of heroin and another $70,000 in cash, neighbors celebrated what they hoped was removal of an entire gang of bad guys.
But now neighbors and elected officials are appalled that one defendant’s lawyer is fighting to return the defendant to the streets. They are doubly appalled that the defense lawyer is also their own state senator – Mark J. Grisanti, R-Buffalo.
Did no one realize he was a lawyer when they elected him?
The senator said he understands the concerns of constituents who have complained to him, but makes no apologies for providing the legal representation to which Martinez is entitled.
“I am a criminal defense attorney and everybody is entitled to representation,” he said. “I think I am able to separate the two easily.”
This raises a lot of issues. First, there is absolutely nothing wrong with a part-time state senator, who is also a criminal defense lawyer, from representing clients. At least in concept. After all, the whole point of being a citizen legislator is to be able to go back to your hardware store and sell nuts and bolts, where you can be close to your constituents and reflect their interests and concerns.
Except most constituents don’t share the concerns of criminal defense lawyers. And in this instance, the constituents’ concerns are pretty much diametrically opposed to the less-than-local interest of protecting the Constitution and representing the very guy the constituents want to get rid of.
Usually, a history of representing the accused is as quick a way to assure a person will never be elected as possible. Heck, the United States Senate just rejected NAACP litigation director Debo P. Adegbile for head of the DoJ’s civil rights division just for being able to spell Mumia Abu-Jamal’s name correctly. Imagine how he would have been treated if they ever shook hands.
No, criminal defense lawyers are a bit underappreciated among constituents. Yet, those who voted for Grisanti knew what he did for a living. It was at the heart of the attack ads against him:
Grisanti’s dual occupations as politician and defense lawyer have come under scrutiny before. During the 2010 campaign that led to Grisanti’s upset victory, then-Democratic incumbent Antoine M. Thompson aired television ads attacking Grisanti for defending a heroin dealer, drug addict and murder suspect. Thompson stuck by the ads, while Grisanti labeled them “reprehensible.”
“Grisanti is a lawyer who has made money representing heroin traffickers, drug addicts, murderers and business owners charged with food stamp fraud,” a spokeman for Senate Democrats, Austin Shafran, said at the time. “He made money representing these people, and voters need to know the facts.”
The voters knew the facts. They voted for him anyway. Whether that means Grisanti was that darned likeable, or Thompson sucked that bad, isn’t clear. What is clear is that his constituents knew they were electing a Senator who doubled as a guy who defends drug dealers, and did so anyway.
Yet, this particular situation is unseemly. When your day job is in direct conflict with your elected office, it’s understandable that the townsfolk get angry. As state senator, Grisanti is the guy to see if you want to rid your community of a blight. He’s the guy you should be able to turn to for help. That’s part of the obligation one assumes by seeking elected office and serving.
You don’t necessarily agree to do your constituents’ bidding per se, but it’s rather hard to explain that the obstacle in the way is that you’re being paid by the bad guy to do his bidding instead.
Granted, it’s tough out there, and Grisanti likely got a decent fee for the case. Certainly, one can’t fault him for earning a living, given how poorly the state pays its elected officials. But just as his constituents knew he was a criminal defense lawyer when they elected him, Grisanti knew what the pay was when he ran for office. Just as they can’t quite complain, neither can he.
There should be no issue, no question, that Grisanti is fully entitled to represent the accused in criminal prosecutions while simultaneously executing the duties of his office as a State Senator. The two positions are not inherently in conflict.
But he can also exercise the discretion his constituents expect of him to pick his cases, his clients, carefully so that his duty toward one doesn’t come, or appear to come, at the expense of his duty toward the other.
It’s hard enough to be a criminal defense lawyer without the public thinking that you’re part of the problem, mouthpiece for society’s pariahs, culpable for all the harm that befalls nice people at the hands of our clients. Sure, it’s misguided, but there is no intelligence test required for breathing. But we don’t have to add to the problem by rubbing people’s noses in the fact that conflicts, whether real or apparent, happen and we pick the side that pays us better. That doesn’t help.
H/T Our hinterlands correspondent, Kathleen Casey