Bunin: Public Defense Management, Free Expression And The Squawk

Ed, Note: The following guest post is by Alex Bunin, the Harris County (Houston) Public Defender, formerly the Federal Defender for the Northern District of New York, with regard to the New York Legal Aid Society’s treatment of Appellate Squawk.

Blawger Appellate Squawk’s May post, “Are you a cissy?” drew scrutiny from management in the office where Squawk is an assistant public defender. The post satirically described an exchange by an assistant public defender with a defendant in a holding cell.

The lawyer repeats by rote a list of questions meant to determine the client’s chosen gender identity. The defendant grows uneasy and then angry with the lawyer’s failure to sense the client’s potential danger from cell mates because of the implication he may not be masculine. The humor of the post – and it is funny – is not at the expense of persons who identify as lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender or queer. The satire is about how one-size-fits-all policies (no matter how well-intended), can dehumanize clients.

Even the title is inoffensive. “Cissy” is a play on the term “cisgender,” which means a person who identifies their gender as their birth sex. It was not “sissy” – traditionally, a demeaning term for a male who appears effeminate.

I write, not just because Squawk is a friend whose work I have admired for years, but because I am management. I have established and managed public defender offices for 22 years [Southern District of Alabama 1995-99, Northern District of New York 1999-2010, District of Vermont 1999-2006, Harris County (Houston), TX 2010- date]. Management in a public defender’s office is often placed on the defensive because of issues that are out of their control.

The most common are too many cases and not enough money, but any employee can cause an investigation of the office. When these issues arise, there may be few persons in places of power willing to defend the office. There is no single answer about how to address these challenges except to act on principle and not from fear or inflexibility.

One of the principles to uphold is to allow employees to speak their minds. Since most public defender offices are government agencies, or heavily government funded, speech is a First Amendment issue. That means management must balance employee speech with clients’ representation, both with constitutional implications.

Since I do not believe any clients will be harmed by Squawk’s post – and it has both political and literary value – it is an easy call in favor of speech.

12 thoughts on “Bunin: Public Defense Management, Free Expression And The Squawk

  1. B. McLeod

    Well, this is unlikely to end up being about the law. Squawk not only refused to bow to the hat on the pole, she mocked it. That by itself was enough to mark her as an Unbeliever, but, when the zealots “investigated” her, Squawk compounded the offense by mocking the investigation. She may as well have kicked their unicorn. Ideologues with despotic personalities rarely have a sense of humor. I have no doubt they are in a confab right now, discussing why getting rid of Squawk is the absolute, first priority of the organization, no matter any First Amendment (or anything else for that matter).

    1. SHG Post author

      The soul of Legal Aid Society is at risk here, though they can’t grasp it. It exists to defend the accused, but through the machinations of social justice, have conflated their duty with their feelings. Squawk is the battle ground (and not the only one) for LAS’ soul, and the saddest part is that they won’t grasp it until it’s been lost.

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  3. Scott Jacobs

    As the Wokest among the feckless assclowns of Appellate Twitter don’t give a shit, I’ve sort of decided they are worth notice. That they don’t even care enough to investigate what is going on tells me everything I need to know about them.

    But Alex? If my law school is even remotely close to Harris County, I’ll be sending applications to intern there. That guy I’d work for and with happily.

      1. Alex Bunin

        Until recently it was quite a coup to get an internship here. Then Harvey shut down the Criminal Justice Center in a deluge of water and sewage. We are now crammed in the Warrants Division of what is lovingly called “the old jail.” We have trained the rats on the upper floors to serve subpoenas and download dash cam videos.

        1. Scott Jacobs

          Well, in say a couple of years (assuming I’m not attending law school in one of the 49 lesser states), I’m going to be knocking on your door and looking for any sort of internship you have to offer.

        2. Lee

          Well, to look on the bright side, it appears that the Harris Criminal Courts Building will be up and running in another year or so. (A year after Harris County signs the contract, that is).

          Mr. Bunin it is good to see that Harris County has finally done something right in hiring you. Now if we all can survive the ‘temporary’ relocation of the felony courts to the Civil Courthouse. . .

          Lee (A civil trial attorney in Harris County

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