Punished at the Polls

An article discussing the political prospects of public defenders and private defense counsel has been making its way around Facebook in the last few days.(Check it out here.) It outlines the problems that defense attorneys face when running for public office. Unfortunately, it seems that party opponents and political action committees are pouncing on the stigma associated with earning a living providing the accused with representation.

This issue reminds me of encounters I have had with various individuals over the course of my career. On several occasions, I have either been asked if defense attorneys could even run for judgeships, or the assertion has been made to me that those positions should only be held by former prosecutors. These were well-educated people, many of who worked at the courthouse. But I think it’s a great example of why this is getting such traction during election cycles. Public perception of defense attorneys is as one colleague puts it, “right below that of used car salesmen.” (No offense to the used car salesmen out there!)

Of course, standing next to an individual accused of a crime isn’t the most popular place in the room, and it certainly isn’t always the easiest place to stand. But I believe it’s a special calling for attorneys. Defense attorneys are an essential part of a citizen’s constitutional right to due process. They literally stand between a defendant and his right to liberty and the government.

Perhaps the most disheartening thing about this issue is that through media coverage and the political climate, the rights of the accused have been diminished in the public’s view. We, as a society, assume that individuals are guilty from the moment they are charged– we incarcerate those awaiting trial at alarming rates–and we attach a stigma to those who choose to spend their lives protecting the rights of defendants.

The substance of this article I am sure comes as no surprise to those of us in the profession. It is a shame however, that a candidate’s choice to uphold the mandates of our constitution is used as political ammunition against them. It’s a tough job and it’s one that should be heralded in political contests, not an embarrassment to be hidden.

About Courtney Preston Kellner

Courtney Preston Kellner is a partner at Kellner Green, PLLC. Courtney focuses her practice in the area of family law.