Remembering Bob Spangenberg
Bob Spangenberg was the the father of the modern indigent defense reform movement in this country. That is, I believe, a fitting epitaph for his long and illustrious career. But for those of us who follow in his footsteps and for those of us who stand on his shoulders, he might better be described as the Mohammad Ali of the modern indigent defense movement.
Bob had Ali's love of the fight. Like Ali, he believed passionately in the values that really did make America great and he was willing to pay a price for his beliefs. Ultimately, like Ali, his belief in his work and his commitment to the struggle meant personal financial sacrifice, took a toll on his health and, from time to time, took a toll on his relationships with his friends and his peers.
He was my expert, he was my friend, and eventually he was my client. Every time we worked together on a case, we had at least one great fight. My absolutely favorite memories of him are the times, just before we simply had to file something – he would delay and delay, constantly editing the finished product – and he would eventually yell at me, “It's my goddam affidavit!” And I would yell back at him, “Yeah, I know, but it's my goddam lawsuit!” Those fights, like most of his fights, produced great work. I deeply, deeply miss those days and nights and fights with him.
Like Ali, Bob probably fought one too many fights. Toward the end, I used to kid him and tell him I thought he was fundamentally opposed to aging with dignity. And he was. He wanted no part of retirement, he wanted to go on with the work until the very end, but eventually his body just wouldn't let him go any further. But Bob Spangenberg went out fighting.
Actually, as he once told me, it all really started with a fight. His father was a finance guy, and his father really wanted Bob to take a job with a big Boston firm, especially when Bob was made editor-in-chief of the law review at the law school at Boston University. When Bob told his father he would have none of that, and that he was going to work in civil legal services and indigent defense, a huge argument ensued between father and son. As I listened to Bob tell me that story, it was clear to me that that father-son argument had provided the passion and the energy that would drive Bob's remarkable career.
Attorney General Janet Reno got it right when she publicly called Bob Spangenberg “a national treasure.” As anyone who knew Bob knows, Bob had a healthy ego, and he simply loved that statement by the Attorney General. After that statement, every time I had an argument with Bob I always ended it with, “Well, hell, you're a national treasure and I'm not, so maybe you're right.” He loved that. Especially when he was wrong.
As we enter the next crucial phase of the great fight that Bob Spangenberg started, we need to remember the kind of passion and commitment that he brought to his work. And we need to remember that if, like Bob and like Ali, we need to break a little glass along the way and upset some people along the way. That's how Bob got it done, that's how Ali got it done, and that's probably one of the things that we're going to have to do if we're going to get it done.