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The Challenges and Rewards of Being a Public Defender

By Jason Searle, 1L
April 7, 2016

Working as a public defender can mean a grueling schedule and difficult clients and cases, but the rewards of the job often make up for the challenges, said three public defenders during a recent Organization of Public Interest Students (OPIS) panel discussion at Michigan Law.

Sally Larsen, '14, assistant public defender in th​e Maryland Office of the Public Defender, started off the panel, describing a normal day for her as the stereotypical controlled chaos of a public defender's trade. As the day progresses, demands on Larsen gradually build with client meetings, new cases, court appearances, and jail visits. "Jail visits and being in court are the things that take most of my time," Larsen said.

Despite the heavy demands of the job, Larsen enjoys being in court all the time. Any time Larsen is able to have a case dismissed, or secure a not-guilty verdict, she feels great. Even when she doesn't win, Larsen is satisfied knowing she has given her clients a voice. "I've been surprised about how rewarding that can be," Larsen said.

Lorne Brown, '90, first assistant public defender at the Washtenaw County Office of Public Defender, focused on his work involving determinations of whether evidence can be produced to prove elements of the crime. Brown is adamant, he said, that officer witnesses provide clear and complete evidence. He explained this expectation with a personal story. While a student at Michigan, Brown was walking along the street when a patrol vehicle sped to him with a screeching halt. "Hey you! I want to talk to you!" the officer yelled, and Brown was forced to bend over the hood of the officer's vehicle and patted down because he "fit the description of a guy who was breaking into lockers." Brown said the experience motivated him, and also that it leads to his frustration now when he senses judges are biased in favor of prosecutors.

Valerie Newman, assistant defender at the State Appellate Defender Office and adjunct clinical professor at Michigan Law, brought a unique perspective to the panel, as she is able to work at both the appellate and trial court levels. Newman says this allows her to "change the law for the better for everybody." She has argued many cases bef​ore the Sixth Circuit and two cases before the Supreme Court of the United States. And Lafler v. Cooper, she reported, "was mine the whole way through," from the trial court on up.

Newman's job, however, comes with its own challenges. Because she works at both the trial and appellate levels, Newman is required to visit clients throughout the state, making for a lot of driving. And, although Newman believes she is in a good position to bring about change, she acknowledges that barriers in the system remain. She shared an example of a talk she had with a judge after losing a motion for a mentally ill client. The judge called her to the bench after ruling against her client and said, "I agree with you, but what am I supposed to do with him?" Newman identified this response as one of a good judge who cared but felt he had no good options. Too many other judges she deals with, she said, become numb to hearing the "same claims over and over." Even so, Newman said, "there have to be [public defenders] who are willing to educate people. That's a great way to change the law."

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