Public defenders fight a skewed system of justice

For all the love Americans rightly show the Constitution, the right to an attorney is a poor step child.

Politicians regularly try to starve the public defender program, and few people care; if you aren’t guilty of something, why are you in court?

If there are heroes who walk among us, the attorneys who insist that the law treat everyone fairly surely are angels.

Take Denis Hynes, profiled in the St. Cloud Times for his 22 years of service as public defender in Stearns County.

“I think that our Constitutional rights are important and if you don’t protect them for the bad guys, who’s going to know that when you’re on trial — or anybody else — that you’re not the bad guy?” Hynes tells the paper. “You don’t have the rights if you don’t protect them.”

“You don’t have to like people to represent them,” he said. “My job isn’t to win, to get them off. It’s to make sure their rights are protected.”

Why is that a concept that garners so little respect?

He’s had almost 7,000 cases since the turn of the century, he says. That works out to more than 100 cases he’s handling at any one time.

It’s not just the system and the population that disrespects public defenders. Quite often, so do their clients. Just ask a PD how many times they’ve heard, “I want a real lawyer.”

“You’re the dog that’s there to kick,” Hynes said. “They’re in trouble and they want us to fix it.”

Only about 11 percent of lawyers graduating from Harvard Law School go into public interest law, where the starting salary is about $45,000, Harvard Magazine says, a fraction of what the corporate world pays.

“The issue of funding public defense is very simple to solve,” Pete Davis, editor of the Harvard Law Review Record, says of the obligation of law schools to advocate for public interest lawyers. “There is already a Legal Services Corporation, there’s already a source of funding for public defenders, but they don’t have enough money, and because they don’t have enough money, the legal system is skewed. The deans of the top five law schools could all go to Congress and say, ‘We cannot keep producing lawyers for a legal system that isn’t working,’ and call on lawmakers to adequately fund public defense.”

A day in the life of a Minnesota public defender (NewsCut)