The PBA induced drama around the Bronx Defenders, carefully crafted to deflect attention from the non-indictment of Officer Pantaleo for the killing of Eric Garner, and the subsequent work slowdown to teach Mayor Bill de Blasio and Police Commissioner Bill Bratton which part of the body politic is truly in charge, left two casualties behind. Cardozo lawprof Jonathan Oberman explains:
When Patrick Lynch chastised Mayor de Blasio that “there was blood on the mayor’s hands” following the tragic killing of officers Rafael Ramon and Wenjian Liu, many reasonable people recognized the comment for what it was, an effort to verbally smear the mayor to secure Lynch’s political base, and deflect attention from the serious questions being raised post-Ferguson, Mo. and Staten Island. . . . As the target of an inflammatory attack, one would not have expected the mayor to engage in similarly inflammatory rhetoric.
Yet that is what he did.
Scapegoats were needed, and Bill de Blasio took the lead:
While recognizing the good work that most Bronx Defenders do, de Blasio cautioned, “But these are some very bad apples who did something absolutely horrid.”
Absolutely “horrid”? You mean, like killing a guy for no good reason? No, no, that’s not what you mean at all. You mean the “absolutely horrid” mistake of two lawyers who appeared in a brief cameo in a music video that was made before the killing of Officers Ramos and Liu?
The Bronx Defenders’ failure to secure a guarantee to screen the full video prior to its being posted or publicized was an error. To be clear, there are no “bad apples” at the Bronx Defenders.
No one has suggested for a moment that the two lawyers were not effective and zealous advocates for their clients. Remember that part, that they are lawyers who represent living, breathing clients in actual courtrooms? What part of their cameo in this music video that would never have gotten half the attention it has but for Pat Lynch’s shrieking about it, has anything to do with their representation of their clients?
These were two good lawyers. These were two lawyers who served their clients well. The few seconds on a screen, having no connection whatsoever to their performance as lawyers on behalf of their clients, resulted in the city demanding they be thrown under the bus. And for what?
The Department of Investigation’s report asserted that the video advocates the retaliatory killing of police officers. In fact, the video is far more nuanced, primarily venting frustration at the sheer number of unarmed black men killed by the police, and lamenting the justice system’s persistent failure to hold officers legally accountable for their conduct. It warns that anger and frustration have produced a call by some for retaliatory violence but its dominant theme is that when confronted by officers, one should extend one’s arms to the sky and say “Hands up. Don’t shoot.”
Nuance isn’t for everybody, and any hint of violence against cops is more than enough to get Pat Lynch’s blood and re-election campaign boiling. And the chance for de Blasio to sacrifice a couple of Bronx Defender lawyers on the PBA altar was just too easy to pass up. After all, the mayor was fighting for peace in his time, and indigent defenders are a dime a dozen, literally, so calling them “bad apples” could not have come easier.
It’s just that it was nonsense.
But no matter what meaning one extracts from the video, it is difficult to see how one can leap to characterizing the Bronx Defenders lawyers as “bad apples” and demand a plan of action at the cost of an implicit threat to de-fund the office. Its 250 lawyers, social workers, advocates, investigators and other staff serve clients charged with crimes and assist community members with housing, family, child custody, immigration, school-related and re-entry issues. The office has trained scores of public defender offices around the country to adapt its creative, cost-efficient model. At a time when so many communities are struggling to give meaning to the 50-year-old promise of Gideon v. Wainright, Steinberg has built an office that delivers that promise on a daily basis.
These were two excellent lawyers who served in an excellent organization that delivered on the promise of Gideon when so many others have not. These were good lawyers. Lousy music video actors, perhaps, or at least lousy at anticipating the ruckus that could potentially build around them if something really bad happened between the time the video was shot and the time it was released, but good lawyers.
Reasonable people should recognize overreaction when it stares them in the face. And no responsible party should have sought to score political points or regain political capital by threatening the health of Bronx’s underserved population or the dedicated Bronx Defenders staff and lawyers who serve them.
Yet, every “responsible party” who went anywhere near this morass used it to score political points, and did so by trampling on two indigent defenders for reasons having nothing whatsoever to do with their performance as lawyers.
To some extent, everyone who has touched this sordid story did a bit of Gertruding, qualifying their support with the caveat, “but they were wrong.” This wasn’t a great decision, but let’s get real about it: had the political climate been slightly different, no one would have noticed or cared.
This was just an easy target, and these two lawyers had no chance of defending themselves given the huge guns shooting at them. It just wasn’t anywhere near that big a deal. In the scheme of things gone wrong, this was baloney.
Meanwhile there are dozens of cases every year in which judges reprimand assistant district attorneys for inappropriate behavior that borders on malpractice but those prosecutors are never investigated, retrained or fired.
It’s not that “tit for tat” is the answer, but let’s call false equivalencies out for what they are. There’s no shortage of problems demanding attention, including misconduct going to the core of what lawyers do. This, a music video, just doesn’t make the list of serious problems demanding redress.
Two excellent lawyers, Kumar Rao and Ryan Napoli, got caught in the political crossfire between Pat Lynch and Bill de Blasio, and the mayor immediately made them the scapegoats to score some points with the PBA. There are no bad apples at Bronx Defenders. There were no bad apples there either.
At any other time, the worst that would have happened was that they would get a stern talking-to about not getting involved in outside interests that had the potential to conflict with their work on behalf of Bronx Defenders. But that doesn’t change the fact that they were two dedicated lawyers, not bad apples, whose careers were sacrificed because they were easy scapegoats.
They deserved better than to be used as scapegoats by the mayor.