Tuesday, January 01, 2008

Why Me?

I am very honored to be Criminal Defense Lawyer of the Year by Scott Greenfield at Simple Justice. Actually, I'm a little stunned. The exchange I had with the Juvenile Court Judge was posted almost as an afterthought, and I wasn't sure anyone would even notice. So, thank youver ymuch for the honor, Scott.

My first thought was to demand a recount or to ask why some other nominee like Jon Katz, Mark Bennett, Sunwolf or Barry Scheck wasn't named. After all, I'm in my sixth month of private practice, having worked in the Public Defenders Office for the last seven years since law school, proud to be a criminal defense lawyer but not exactly gifted with the talents these people consistently display in major cases. To paraphrase what George Kennedy said to Cool Hand Luke, I haven't done any "world shaking." (although I do have big plans for the new year!)

But then I read Scott's explanation of why he picked me. He writes...

"It's not that this incident reflects a picture perfect response to an overreaching judge, or an incident that one hopes to create through intransigence or disrespect. It was simply a brief snapshot of how a lawyer, without any reason to anticipate a confrontation, finds himself forced to make a decision as to whether he wants to fulfill his role in the scheme of the criminal justice system or play dead to appease a judge or just avoid confrontation at the expense of his client. This represents the sort of everyday decisions that defense lawyers are required to make, and David's choice, as a young lawyer faced with potentially harsh consequences, showed the fortitude that reflects the finest of the criminal defense bar."

After I read this, I feel a lot better about accepting the award because it shows Scott wasn't so much highlighting what I did as using this incident as a way to highlight the often thankless work criminal defense lawyers are required to do, often at low pay, while constantly being asked "how can you defend those people?" and being thought of as rich, slimy crime-enablers.

I didn't do anything extreme or brave; i just did what most other criminal defense lawyers would have done in the same situation. Like most of you every day, and like I said in the transcript, "I’m trying to do my job, the job you asked me to do." I didn't do anything heroic; I just stuck to my guns while the judge escalated the situation way beyond the way things usually go in the courtroom.

You would have done the same thing; you just haven't been confronted with a judge who would push things this far yet.

But the point is, as criminal defense lawyers, we all take these stands every day. Usually they don't involve handcuffs for us, but we take stands that protect people from the awesome power of the state, usually while simultaneously being thought of as the lowest rung in the legal hierarchy and accused of being "pro bad guy," as if that's all that were at stake in the criminal justice system.

So I'll gladly take the award and dedicate it to next year's winner: the "in the trenches," student loan buried, broken down car driving, criminal defense lawyer who refuses to work for the state or for the corporations, who doesn't give a rat's ass how his or her entry reads in next year's bar magazine, who fights for his or her clients even when they refer to him as a "public pretender" (I heard this one so much it became funny), who's the least likely ever (like me) to ever win a "lawyer of the year award" but who keeps fighting anyway, focused on keeping playing an essential role to keep the power of the prosecutors and the state in check and keep the criminal justice machine from feeding on more poor people.

Keep being a person with convictions, even though you may be standing beside a person with several priors.

So, at the risk of sounding like one of those satirical Budweiser commercials, "Here's to you Mr. or Ms. Simple Justice criminal defense lawyer of the year 2008." May you be just as surprised and shocked as I was to get an early morning email naming you as such and think "Why me?"

I mean, if I deserve it, you do too. Go get'em, tiger.

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