Public defenders drawn to mission, not money
It certainly isn’t the money that draws young attorneys to the public defender’s office.
“You’re either a trial attorney, or you’re not,” says Tina Fang, head of the Glenwood Springs Office of the Public Defender, which covers the 9th Judicial District, which includes Garfield, Pitkin and Rio Blanco counties.
Out of law school, likely carrying $100,000 of student debt or more, they could go to a big law firm and make $150,000 out of the gate, she said. Average starting salaries for public defenders are more like $55,000.
They take the job more out of a sense of mission, answering a calling, than for notoriety, she said. Public defenders represent criminal defendants who can show they lack the money to pay for their own attorney. They fulfill a defendant’s constitutional right to a fair trial.
“It’s people who really want to do this kind of work. And some people really just love the rush of being a litigator,” Fang said. “Being in a public defender’s office as a lawyer is just about the best way you can go about getting into court litigating.”
Those first years of experience will quickly determine whether a lawyer is suited for it — and not everyone is, she said. “There are fantastic lawyers who would make terrible public defenders, because they’re not cut out for the caseload or the stress.”
Because of the sheer amount of time they spend in the courtroom, becoming familiar with what arguments are persuasive for which judges and getting to know the deputy district attorneys well, “I think the public defenders are the best lawyers in court,” said Fang.
And because of the huge workload, stress level and pay, a person who doesn’t truly love it won’t stick around.
You’ll never hear someone in a public defender’s office say that they have a reasonable caseload and just the right number of lawyers, said Fang. “But that’s the nature of the work that we do.”
If a public defender’s caseload is 100 instead of 50, they’ll just work harder, longer hours. Even with 50, they’ll still feel like they’re not doing enough, she said.
“My lawyers are always there on the weekends, late at night, regardless of what their caseloads are like. And the caseloads are high.”
She brushes off the insane workload as just part of the territory.
Coming up on 10 years in the Glenwood Springs office, Fang has seen some solid improvements. When she first came to the office, there were three attorneys, herself included. “That was completely insufficient to cover this judicial district. It’s head-scratching how little resources we had then.”
But slowly, the office has become staffed more appropriately.
The Glenwood Springs public defender’s office is now made up of six attorneys, two investigators and two administrative staffers.
“Still, it never feels like you have enough staffing. Whether it’s lawyers, investigators, administrative staff, the workload is just enormous,” said Fang.
“At the same time, I will tell you my office does an incredible job. It’s remarkable actually. We give them a ton of training. They get more onsite resources in terms of feedback. I do a lot of one-on-one training with my lawyers.”
And though indigent defense might be taken for granted now, it hasn’t been around all that long.
“The right to a public defender in state court did not exist until 1963,” said Fang.
Before that, defendants had to either hire a private attorney or represent themselves if they couldn’t afford one. That changed with the landmark U.S. Supreme Court case, Gideon v. Wainwright, which ruled that indigent defendants must be appointed an attorney.
States then began adhering to that decision. But to this day, few states have state-run public defender offices, said Fang.
“There’s only a handful that I’m aware of, and that’s really troubling. There should be state-run public defender systems in all 50 states.
“The public defender system in Colorado is exceptional because of the amount of training young lawyers get, the training the investigators get and the support that we have statewide to help each other work on cases.”
Anticipating new DA
Fang said she has a good working relationship with the DA-elect, Jeff Cheney, who’s set to be sworn in Jan. 10.
“We’ve worked on really big cases together when he was the assistant district attorney. I have a lot of respect for him, and I’m looking forward to working with him.”
However, Cheney worked under former-DA Martin Beeson, whose policies were outrageous, said Fang.
The public defender recalled that Beeson had at one point called her office “tax-funded lawyers for criminals.”
Somewhere in that statement Beeson forgot about the presumption of innocence and that the law gives indigent defendants the right to legal representation, she said.
“That Jeff worked for him during that time, when Beeson had extremely harsh and ineffective policies, gives me some pause about what Jeff’s administration is going to be like. But I’m keeping an open mind because Jeff is a different person than Martin is,” she said.
Fang will look to Cheney to follow through on campaign commitments to restorative justice as well.
“If he does revert back to harsh policies that I don’t think are effective or fair, we will fight that with every measure of the law that we’re able to. That’s what we do.”
But in some sense, it doesn’t matter who the DA is, she said, because the public defenders answer to a constitutional mandate, the Sixth Amendment (guaranteeing the rights of criminal defendants) and the state public defender. The person elected to DA doesn’t change that responsibility.
Living in the community
Fang said her office has seen an overwhelmingly positive responses from the community over the years.
“But there’s this dreaded question when you’re going out and meeting new people: ‘What do you do for a living?’
“You tell them you’re a public defender, and 99.9 percent of the time the immediate question you get is, ‘Wow, how do you defend people like that?’”
Sometimes that question is coming from a pretty uninformed place, she said.
Lots of people, including potential jurors, assume that if the public defenders are representing someone, the defendant must have done something wrong, said Fang.
“But that natural human inclination is completely at odds with our constitution and the presumption of innocence,” she said.
“The number one surprising thing to me as a public defender is how many people were actually innocent of the things they were charged with. It’s shocking. A remarkable number of people did not do what they were accused of, or what they did was completely different from what they were charged with.”
It’s easy for someone to make a criminal allegation, she said. “When we see someone charged based only on that allegation with no follow-up investigation, that’s alarming.
“Pretend this defendant is your family member. What if they got charged with a crime they didn’t commit? What if it was you? Who would you want in that courtroom? Someone who wanted to be there? Or someone who isn’t sure why they were there defending you?”