You Have the Right to an Attorney, But What About the Quality?

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Everyone, no matter how poor, has a right to a quality lawyer. That’s what the Supreme Court said in 1963. But staggering caseloads for public defenders in New York and other cities have made it almost impossible to provide quality representation for people who can’t afford lawyers on their own. New York just became the first state to pass a budget bill that will limit the number of cases any one court-appointed lawyer can handle. WNYC’s Ailsa Chang spent the day with a public defender in Brooklyn to find out how a crushing workload can affect the kind of representation some people get.

REPORTER: A cup of coffee and one cigarette. That’s all Christine Gau has before her day as a public defender begins. Today, she’s got a man who stiffed a cab driver, another with fake license plates and a woman who threatened to beat up another woman interested in the same guy. When you follow Gau around for the day, the first thing you notice is how much she walks …and walks, and walks. There are courtrooms on the third floor, fifth floor, sixth and eighth floors of the New York City Criminal Court in Brooklyn.

GAU: It’s running back and forth. And there are days where I sweat …. Back and forth, back and forth, back and forth, back and forth.

REPORTER: And that’s just when she’s doing misdemeanors. Felonies are in the Supreme Court – several blocks away. So on days with felonies and misdemeanors, this reed-thin woman is sprinting – and hoping the judge won’t mind the sneakers still on her feet.

GAU: I think I’ve lost, um, two pant sizes since I started this job?

REPORTER: Right now, she’s defending about 100 the same time. And that’s typical among her colleagues at The Legal Aid Society, which handles about 90 percent of the public defender work in the city. The state courts say that no public defender should ever have more than 70 pending cases to do a decent job, but she and her colleagues are handling almost 50 percent more than that. The top judge in the state of New York says this is a travesty. A lot of people have known there’s been a shortage of public defenders for the past 40 years.

LIPPMAN: Everyone pays lip service to it.

REPORTER: Jonathan Lippman is the Chief Judge of the New York Court of Appeals. He’ll be one of the five judges approving the caseload standards that will be phased in starting 2010.

LIPPMAN: Because who’s against a fair trial? Who’s against indigent representation? Where are your priorities?

REPORTER: A lot of people standing in this Brooklyn courthouse don’t look like anyone’s priority. The hallway is swarming with defense lawyers and their clients, paired off in hurried, last-minute caucuses.

Some look like they’ve just met for the first time, minutes before appearing in front of the judge. And for many of these pairs, court appearances will be the only time they will ever meet. Inside the courtroom, some defendants are waiting for lawyers who never show up. Even Gau, who prides herself on remaining close to her clients, has trouble recognizing some of them.

GAU: All right, let me see who this guy is, who’s calling my name. Hey! How are you, Mr…..?

CLIENT: Jackson….

REPORTER: Gau often sees 20 clients in a single day. So efficiency is key. But even some easy cases don’t get squared away quickly. Like this client, who’s facing charges for making threatening phone calls.

GAU: So what they offered you is that you won’t have a criminal record, so a one-day anger management class that you do have to pay for, and then to stay away from her two years.

CLIENT: Two years?

GAU: It’s a two-year order of protection.

CLIENT: Why two years? They offered me six months back there. I went six months without bothering the girl, and now I keep – f**k this sh**!

REPORTER: The woman storms off, and Gau looks really annoyed. She’s got several more clients to go before the court breaks for lunch. If she can’t get to all her cases in time, she may have to hand off some of them to her colleague, who’s been assigned to catch all the cases the other lawyers need to drop for the day.

BLOOM My name is Jeffrey Bloom. Today I’m assigned to the position of catcher, or traffic.

REPORTER: Overflow cases are so expected everyday, there’s a position solely devoted to absorbing them. By midday, the number of cases Bloom is “catching” can be staggering.

BLOOM: At times, a hundred. Usually between 50 and 75, but sometimes a hundred.

REPORTER: In one day?

BLOOM: In one day, yes.

And it’s a very mechanical kind of thing. And it’s very difficult. These are human beings …. It’s an individual, whose life, whose family, everything is affected by this case. And when we only have 45 seconds to talk to them and make decisions, it’s very difficult.

REPORTER: When Gau gets back to the office, other work is just beginning – legal research, motion-writing and answering voicemails.

Gau says she’s proud of the work she does because she’s protecting the rights of people so many have already written off. But she says everyday is triage – you *have* to let some things go. She’s better than many of her colleagues – she tries to call everyone back within 24 hours. But for some of her cases now, she knows she just won’t have the time to investigate fully, to find enough witnesses, or make certain pre-trial motions. And she’s already skipping lunch most days and working nearly every weekend.

GAU: So last week, I had six cases on for trial, all in misdemeanor courts. And really, there’s no way you can be absolutely ready on all of them …. I ended up picking two cases where I was really ready and I wanted to do the trials .… The other four, I just sort of decided there’s no way I’m going to be ready, I’m going to have to go in there and when the judge asks me if I’m ready, say “No, I’m sorry, it’s just not possible.”

REPORTER: One of her cases has been waiting to go to trial since 2006. The longer you wait, the harder it is to gather witnesses and evidence. But what she feels most guilty about are the times when her busy schedule pressures clients to plead guilty to minor infractions.

GAU: Sure maybe in a perfect world, I could spend 15 hours investigating your marijuana possession case, and we could fight this and we could win this, but frankly it’s going to take a year and a half of both of our time. They’re offering you something much better, they’re never going to believe you over a police officer anyway….There’s a lot of things that happen in that sense. “Do you really want to fight this? Are you sure? I don’t know if you’re going to win anyway.” And a lot of that is because you don’t have the time to commit to the case to know.

REPORTER: Rushed guilty pleas is one of reasons the New York Civil Liberties Union is suing the state for failing to provide effective counsel to indigent defendants. The organization says caseload limits are a good start, but they only apply to the city, and the rest of the state’s public defenders are overloaded, too. Meanwhile Mayor Bloomberg plans to cut funding to public defenders by 13 percent starting July 1st. For WNYC, I’m Ailsa Chang.