My Sincere Thanks
In May of 1980 I was admitted to the Bar in Tennessee, hung out my shingle and started taking appointed cases in Knoxville. I entered this criminal defense world admiring a great defense attorney named Bob Ritchie.In addition to being unquestionably one of the very best at his craft, Bob was also a most generous and kind man. Bob represented people from all across the country. If you had money, and were unfortunate enough to have been charged with a crime, there was a good chance you knew Bob. I hoped to be like Bob when I grew up professionally.
In the mid-1990's our state Supreme Court created the Indigent Defense Commission. The IDC was tasked to 'redesign indigent criminal defense' in Tennessee. I was on that Commission and only a few months down the road our chair unexpectedly passed away. Even more unexpectedly, I was designated to replace him. One of the first things I did was to appoint Bob Ritchie to the Commission … because Bob knew everything … or so I believed. Quickly Bob taught me a very valuable (and surprising) lesson:
Because one understands how to be a successful criminal defense lawyer, don't assume they'll understand how to be a public defender, or even what a public defender needs to do his job effectively. Yes, the same laws apply to the defendant with means as those without (okay humor me here) but every other practice dynamic is different … not even in the same ball park … not even close to the same ball park.
And Bob - a man who had taken his share of "pro bono" cases - thought he understood what being a public defender meant. He thought he understood what we needed to do our jobs effectively. But sadly, Bob didn't know what he didn't know. And he wasn't the only one. The non-public defender members of the Commission didn't understand who we were either and okay, hell, I'll even say it, the public defender members of the Commission didn't seem to understand who public defenders are and what we need to do our jobs. This belief that you know who someone is, but you don't, reminds me of a song … everything seems to remind me of a song …
I grew up a fan of Leon Russell. Usually, I preferred Leon's raucous shouting (e.g., Jumpin' Jack Flash/Youngblood) to his more contemplative material, but on “Magic Mirror” from Leon's LP Carney, he sings:
To the thieves I am a bandit
The mothers think I'm a son
To the preachers I'm a sinner
Lord I'm not the only one
To the sad ones I'm unhappy
To the losers I'm a fool
To the students I'm a teacher
With the teachers I'm in school
To the hobos I'm imprisoned by everything I own
To the soldier I'm just someone else who's dying to go home
The general sees a number, a politician's tool
To my friends I'm just an equal in this whirlpool.
To policeman I'm suspicious it's in the way I look
I'm just another character to fingerprint and book
To the censors I'm pornography with no redeeming grace
To the hooker I'm a customer without a face
The sellers think I'm merchandise, they'll have me for a song
The left ones think I'm right
The right ones think I'm wrong
And many people look my way
And many pass me by
And in my quiet reflection I wonder why
… and while that may be more Leon than you care to enjoy, when Tim Young, Ernie Lewis, Ed Monahan and myself sat down five years ago to discuss the future of public defense, we understood clearly why “people who might look our way, might also pass us by.” We realized that public defenders needed to take control of our identity. We needed to sing with our own voice. Others were defining who we were as public defenders. Others were determining what we needed. And others were speaking on our behalf. And public defenders were allowing that to happen.
Five years ago public defenders lacked an 'official' presence. If you wanted to know about public defenders you asked the National Legal Aid and Defender Association (NLADA) or the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers (NACDL). And while that's not intended as a slam on either of those organizations, the reality is, they, like Bob Ritchie, don't 'know' us. To be absolutely clear, for a very long time I was a member of NLADA. I like NLADA. Same with NACDL. Hell, I'm still a member of NACDL and, from time to time (mainly when I can afford it) I try to attend their trainings. But having either of those organizations define public defense is like asking my beloved Bob Ritchie to design indigent defense systems. Bob, for all of his many strengths, simply wasn't one of us.
So, five years ago, in Dayton, Ohio, NAPD was created. The goal was to centralize all things public defense and to take charge of the public defense narrative. Whether you're an institutional defender or a private practitioner handling appointed cases, whether you're an investigator, admin staff, or a social worker working in a public defender system, we know what you need and we're trying our best to provide it for you … created for 'public defenders' by 'public defenders'.
Yes, as an organization, we're still trying to find our legs. But we're 15,000+ strong and with each year we're getting better at what we're trying to do.
So, thank you for the opportunity to direct NAPD over the last two years. Paul DeWolfe and Derwyn Bunton will lead us over the next four. You won't find more talented public defenders than those two. I urge you to find a way to support them and NAPD. And by doing so, you'll become a better public defender and your clients will benefit. After all, our work is all about the client.
So, indulge me as I end my two-year run as Chair of this exciting, new, public defender organization with a toast that I once heard my friend Henry Martin (a federal defender in Nashville), offer to a room full of his closest public defender friends. It went something like this: "To us, and them that's like us, damn few."