Tuesday Talk*: Public Pretenders

Some years ago, I wrote a post that extolled the virtues of public defenders. I received an email from an old friend, a lawyer with more than 200 felony jury trials under his belt, inquiring why I would be so overly kind when we all knew that PDs were no more worthy of praise than anyone else.

Some were great lawyers. Most were not. Whether they just didn’t have the chops for the trenches, were burned out, were jaded or just didn’t give a damn, being a public defender, per se, made no lawyer better or worse. Why contribute the lie that they were somehow virtuous by dint of the job they held?

My answer was that PDs get treated poorly. Defendants hated them, assume they’re a bunch of incompetent losers and failures, or they would have a decent job. People tend to value others based on what they cost. PDs came free, and consequently were worth what their clients paid. This was unfair to PDs. Then again, some were awful lawyers, walking ineffective assistance of counsel. 

Most of us won’t say this openly, as PDs tend to be an exceptionally sensitive lot, outraged by the smallest slight that impugns their self-imagined virtue. There’s little purpose in getting into that battle, as PDs step up to proclaim that they and their colleagues are the best lawyers ever. They’ve gotten rather aggressive about it lately, basking in their self-aggrandizement, knowing that no one has sufficient reason to call bullshit on their bullshit and go to war for no good reason.

One particularly problematic indigent defender** recently found it necessary to not only proclaim his greatness, but to note that he had never, and would never, dirty himself by being a private criminal defense lawyer. It’s one thing for a PD to put himself up on the pedestal, but to smear private criminal defense lawyers for being filthy for getting paid for their services is a bit too shameless to ignore.

When Appellate Squawk wrote of the New York City Legal Aid Society’s proclamation that it was no longer an indigent defense organization but a social justice organization, it signaled the official death of an organization that, for all its ups and downs, was the premier public defender in the nation. And now it was no longer a public defender at all.

Since my writing about it, some of the LAS lawyers and staff have come out from under their rocks to spew their finest jargon at Squawk to rationalize why they’re not public defenders, but true Social Justice Warriors. Squawk, as a long-time and battle-tested Legal Aid lawyer, was the recipient of the children’s insipid venom.

I’ve heard from a number of other experienced LAS lawyer who share Squawk’s concerns that the little darlings are deluded, but they don’t want their names mentioned as they have no interest in fending off the internal Inquisitors of the Orthodoxy who will grieve them all day long. But they are not at all happy about this shift.

But something else has been happening in the background, which bears upon this shift from PD to SJW. The head of Legal Aid, Seymour James, retired in June with no replacement named. Tina Luongo, attorney-in-charge of the criminal division, was the obvious choice of successor. Yet, she didn’t get the gig.

Was it because the “white shoe” board of the Legal Aid Society sees this travesty happening, the unduly passionate forsaking their one job, the defense of the indigent one defendant at at time, and fear Luongo has been too conspicuously aggressive in promoting this social justice war, the fight for the “most vulnerable,” the  POC and LGBTQ communities, and forgotten that the job of the Legal Aid Society is to fight for all accused?

Is there a battle brewing behind the scenes for the soul of public defense, to save it from the babies and crazies who will sell out their clients for the sake of the cause? Is this the hill upon which public defense dies?

*Tuesday Talk rules apply

**By problematic, I refer to twits that are designed to appeal to public emotions and ignorance, but to those of us who know the system, reflect incompetence coupled with a healthy dose of deceit.

11 thoughts on “Tuesday Talk*: Public Pretenders

  1. James

    Yah. Coincident with NYS’s moves to ‘stateize’ indigent criminal defense? The implementation of ‘holistic’ representation (sorry about the scare quotes, feel the sarcasm) and evaluation via ‘performance’ metrics? Giuliani? I’m glad I’m retired. What I’m most proud of is that I strove and mostly succeeded in giving every client from AUO3 to Murder competent and professional representation. I didn’t care who you were unless it mattered. I ain’t you parent or your guardian angel. I’m your lawyer. It doesn’t get better than that.

    1. SHG Post author

      Is it not astounding that the notion of just being a lawyer, just defending your client, is controversial within LAS? Is it not enough?

  2. B. McLeod

    The defender function has few champions in politics. Whatever is happening, it is probably not any kind of principled effort to prevent the office being diverted to its new, social justice mission.

  3. Richard Kopf


    In my experience, Federal Public Defenders are highly skilled professionals. They make my job harder and that is precisely as it should be.

    All the best.


      1. Richard Kopf


        I am a proud suck up. That’s how I got my present gig. In fact, I promote sucking around. It is the diverse thing to do.

        All the best.


  4. Pete

    This PD just doesn’t like lazy or unethical lawyers.
    If you don’t work hard for your clients, screw you.
    If you lie to your clients to get them to pay you, screw you.
    Otherwise, we’re all in this together, imo.
    No type of lawyer has a corner on the market of douchebaggery.

    1. SHG Post author

      We used to be in this together. We should be in this together. That appears to no longer be the case, as least among some former PDs who no longer do public defense.

  5. Joe

    Jesus. I read that post on the 4th and didn’t anticipate that Squawk would be assailed by colleagues in the comments. That’s what happy hour is for.

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