By Paul D. Cadman and Pam Singh, Kern County Public Defender’s Office.
On Dec. 11, an employee in the Public Defender’s Office was honored from among 8,500 employees for workplace excellence. In his remarks, Mike Maggard, chairman of the Kern County Board of Supervisors, remarked that when he came to public service, he was struck by a distinction between public service and private work: in private business, employees are compensated immediately for their excellence — a swift promotion, more money, accolades. Public servants toil because of their love for the work, and the communities and clients that they serve, without expectation.
That distinction is felt profoundly in our office. Here, the client’s interest over that of employees’ individual sense of what they are entitled to as public employees, and what the office/county “owes” them, has been the dominant philosophy in the past decade. The office began a transition that public agencies often do — from a sense of entitlement to a sense of accountability for each person’s work performance — no matter how many years one has been in the office. It is a transition that was met with much resistance by those who eventually left.
Entrenched interests are difficult to shake, and they often contrive reasons for their marginalization. One can only wonder why The Californian’s Steven Mayer (“Bleeding out experienced attorneys,” Dec. 15) would not have conducted the most cursory investigation to report the circumstances under which some of the ex-employees referenced in the article ended their county employment. Some left for more money, others retired, and some who were quoted did so under the cloud of improprieties that are well known. Why weren’t these questions asked?
The answers may indeed speak volumes about the motivation to actively seek out a forum in which to bash their former employer. Others, who apparently engaged in “private” conversations with Mr. Mayer but did not want to be mentioned, left because they were passed in promotions and management positions because their vision of public employment is one that would make our clients and taxpayers shudder.
With respect to quotas in trial: Before we read that Dec. 15 article, we had never heard about there being quotas. The fact that the office encourages trials is an absolute fact. Why? For one, it is the most fundamental constitutional right of a client to demand a trial when he claims his innocence. To say that the office (and in fact, every public defender office) emphasizes trials to protect the rights of the citizens we are entrusted to protect, is an understatement. The alternative to trials is pleading clients to crimes they may not have committed, to charges that are not justified, and to rolling over to the narrative offered by law enforcement. In our business, we call it “dump trucking.” It is antithetical to our role as protectors of the accused.
A large percentage of the attorneys left because quite simply, they did not want to do the work of the office. Pleading a client (which is often best for the client) is far easier than filing motions, preparing for trial, and then spending days and weeks in trial. It is grueling, to be sure. The fact that an attorney has put in 10 years, or 15 years, or even 25 years, does not absolve them from vigorous representation of clients. That, by definition, means that of hundreds and thousands of clients, at least some percentage will assert their absolute innocence and want a jury trial. An attorney who finds going to trial too burdensome is simply not equipped for public defender work.
In a private law firm, no matter what the age of the attorney and longevity, they must still perform to the fullest to their last day on the job. By conferring “tenure,” public employment has many virtues, but it also breeds complacency and a sense of entitlement. There is a sense of having paid one’s “dues.” For a client facing life in prison, it matters little that his attorney has paid his/her dues. What matters is whether the attorney is fighting for them now.
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Paul D. Cadman is a deputy defender in the Kern County Public Defender’s office. His colleague, Pam Singh,contributed to this article. Another View presents a critical response to a previous editorial, column or news story.