Public defenders preserve liberty

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This is one of those “don’t know what you’ve got ‘til it’s gone” things. One of the many and — literally — vital blessings we Americans have is a public defender. Do we stop at taking this fundamental element of a democratic society for granted? Nope.

We do far worse: We vilify them.

Public defenders are heroes. Yes, they defend the poor who can’t afford an advocate. But they do more than that: They defend the system. Heck, they ARE the system in a way, because when society didn’t have them and the rights they fight for, government was a scary thing. Far too much power, far too much corruption — the sort our ancestors fled to create this nation. Far too easy to bust down doors, railroad the little guy, persecute rather than prosecute.

A system like that attracts the wrong sort to public office.

Public defenders defend democracy; that’s why we need them, and their passion. Public defenders and criminal defense attorneys are what keeps the power of government prosecution in check (yes, so do civil rights laws, but who do you think instigated them?). They are the balance in our checks-and-balances, adversarial system. Their work keeps government “honest,” and attracts better quality candidates to offices of all kinds — prosecutors, judges, police officers alike. We need them all. Without that balance, when power is too strong on one side of a judicial system, that power attracts corruption.

And that corruption bodes ill for all of us.

But here’s the kicker: Unlike other players in the legal system, public defenders bat for what society sees as the losing team, and they usually lose. They sign on for that, not because they are “evil” in their defense of “murderers and drug addicts,” but because they are true believers. Public defenders’ offices are

chronically underfunded nationwide, skeleton staffs overworked. That all gets worse by the year with increasing caseloads.

But they press on in this thankless job, because somebody has to. They press on because no matter how unpopular in the public eye (and the public trough), they are the true believers in the Constitution and the Bill of Rights. So much so that they are willing to prove it by sticking with the task, despite being hated by society at large, getting death threats, and working conditions which practically guarantee daily burnout.

Without them, one side of the scale would drop with a thud. Government would loom too large. Only the rich would have a shot at defending charges, which, however unintentional, aren’t always fair or correct. In effect, justice could be bought, as it once was.

That is no slam on the fairness of judges. Fortunately most are now ethical people doing their best in a strained system, with imperfect laws. So are most prosecutors and police. But how do you think it got that way? Only relatively recently did human society’s judicial systems become even remotely fair, and many still aren’t. History and other cultures are replete with examples of corrupt societies without public defenders who are empowered to force those governments and their officers to adhere to basic civil rights — searches, property seizures, and incarcerations based on reliable evidence and reasonable causes.

Allow that to weaken instead of strengthen, and we should all fear the result.

Some legal experts would argue we are not there yet, but we wouldn’t have the rights we do but for these stalwarts of the U.S. Constitution. Many rights we now take for granted happened because defenders of “murderers and addicts” made them an issue in court.

John Adams, you will be missed. To Kootenai County Public Defender Anne Taylor, her team, and others like them both public and private, you are unsung heroes.

•••

Sholeh Patrick, J.D. is a columnist for the Hagadone News Network. Contact her at Sholeh@cdapress.com.

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