Perhaps the nicest thing any judge could say about public defenders is that they’re too zealous in the defense of their clients. It should happen everywhere, except in the courtroom of Hind County, Mississippi Judge Jeffrey Weill. He’s having none of it, according to Jon Rapping.
Judge Jeffrey Weill seems to believe public defenders should be more deferential to him and less passionate in the representation of their clients. Apparently disapproving of the zealous advocacy of one public defender, Judge Weill removed her from all of her cases and, according to Public Defender Michelle Harris, to identify any specific behavior that violated the lawyer’s professional obligations to her clients, or the court.
The story is frustrating, in that Weill fails to offer anything the PD did, “any specific behavior,” that justifies, or even explains, what got him bent out of shape. As described in the Clarion-Ledger, the biggest issue is that the PD, Allison Kelly, wins too much.
Weill said in a letter to Public Defender Michele Harris that his office has experienced an ongoing problem of unprofessional conduct by Assistant Public Defender Alison Kelly.
“Unfortunately, despite my making you aware of the behavior exhibited by Ms. Kelly on more than one occasion, the problems continue and have significantly worsened,” he said.
Harris said Kelly is a senior assistant public defender who is a zealot for her clients and has a high percentage of winning cases. Harris said in court papers that Weill presented no specific misconduct.
Rather than let Weill banish Kelly from his courtroom for failure to respect his authoritah, Public Defender Harris objected, and Weill responded by holding PD Greg Spore and Harris in contempt for refusing to abandon their clients.
Weill had given a case that had been handled by the Public Defender’s Office to a private attorney. Spore objected. Weill told him to stand down. Spore said he wasn’t going to stand down.
Weill threatened Spore with criminal contempt. He took a 15 minute break and said he will come back and deal with Spore. Weill also refused to allow Assistant Public Defender Alison Kelly, who he said he didn’t want handling cases anymore in his court. Weill held Harris in contempt after she refused his request to stand down. Judge Weill had Harris removed from the courtroom by a bailiff after she refused to “stand down.”
Harris said the client was assigned to her office and she won’t stand down.
It’s generally accepted that within the four walls of a courtroom the judge is God, petty one though he might be. Lawyers are taught that the answer to most commands is comply now, grieve later. Harris and the public defenders in her office refused to do that, as there is an exception to this rule where the lives of clients are put wrongfully at risk in the process.
Rapping goes down the inspiration path in his reaction to Weill’s actions.
This case is yet another example of local authorities disregarding the rights of our most vulnerable citizens. It should leave every person who is concerned about justice troubled. Wielding power to interfere with fundamental rights of the least powerful is exactly what our Founding Fathers feared the most. Few things could be less consistent with what our Constitution demands of those given the privilege to preside as judge. Many of us are a paycheck away from needing the services of the public defender should we be wrongly accused of a crime. The citizens of Hinds County are fortunate to have a public defender willing to fight for their constitutional rights. They should demand their judges do the same.
On a more substantive level, since I’ve never been exactly clear on what the Founding Fathers feared the most, the judge’s “dismissal” of a public defender and interference in the attorney/client relationship goes beyond the court’s lawful power. Hard as it may be to imagine, even petty tyrants can’t do anything they please. At least not lawfully.
It’s not that a judge lacks the authority to ban a lawyer from his courtroom, but to do so, there must be a basis in law beyond the conclusory assertion that they aren’t sufficiently obsequious. If the problem was lack of proper respect, then Weill should have identified the conduct so that it would be subject to correction, challenge and review. That it hurt his sensitive judicial feelings means squat.
On the other hand, Weill’s heavy hand leaves one with the clear sense that his issue was that Kelly was kicking too much butt in his courtroom, was too effective, too zealous, representing her clients. Tough nuggies, judge. That’s what lawyers are supposed to do, unless and until they cross an identified line. If so, then it’s the judge’s job to identify what they did to cross that line, rather than whine and fine for doing their job too well.
But Weill’s transferring the PD’s cases to other counsel (which raises the question of why other counsel are happily aiding the judge’s actions), raises significant right to counsel concerns.
“An immediate stay is necessary to prevent such illegal and wrongful transfer of Hinds County Public Defender’s Office clients,” the petition said. In it, Harris and Kelly also filed 55 notices of recusal asking that Weill be removed from presiding over criminal cases handled by Kelly.
Once the PD is assigned, the defendant becomes their client and his Sixth Amendment right to counsel of choice kicks in. The defendant’s lawyer can’t be removed as lawyer without a request and/or good cause. Weill has stated that he will allow the PD’s office to continue to appear before him, except for Kelly. Harris refuses to allow her PDs to do so if Kelly is denied the ability to defend her clients as well, as she won’t acquiesce to Judge Weill’s demand that public defenders can appear before him provided they aren’t too zealous and don’t win too much.
And sadly, the scenario played out in Hinds County, Mississippi, isn’t just an outlier.