Public defenders answer the question, “How can you represent those people?”

Assistant Dean Deirdre von Dornum moderated.On Thursday, October 3, three public defenders came together at Vanderbilt Hall to grapple with the so-called cocktail question, “How can you represent those people?” The panel featured contributors to the essay collection of the same name: Professor Abbe Smith ’82 of Georgetown Law School; David Singleton, Executive Director of the Ohio Justice and Policy Center and Assistant Professor of Law at Northern Kentucky University’s Salmon P. Chase College of Law; and Robin Steinberg ’82, founder and Executive Director of The Bronx Defenders.

Deirdre von Dornum, the New York University School of Law’s new Assistant Dean for Public Service, moderated the panel. Before coming to the Law School, she herself worked for more than ten years for the Federal Defenders of New York, where she rose to Deputy Attorney-in-Charge.

The panelists began the discussion with readings from their essays. Steinberg opened hers by reframing the initial question, rewording it as, “How do you get to be the person who wants to stand by the clients you represent?” She described her journey to becoming a public defender, highlighting a combination of motivating factors—a brilliant professor from NYU Law, inspiring feminist activists, and the experience of having a drug-addicted father. And yet, she said, at the end of the day, being a public defender isn’t about any of these things; it is simply about acting on “a deep and unavoidable sense of shared humanity.”

Singleton and Smith echoed this notion. Singleton rejected the idea of labeling people; he shared his fight against a misguided and unjust law that barred sex offenders from living near public schools. He described understanding his clients via “my own desire not to be represented by my worst moments.” Smith, who is also the Director of the Criminal Defense & Prisoner Advocacy Clinic at Georgetown, shared a humorous experience about trying to get past a metal detector to visit one of her clients. Though the story seemed light-hearted, it also underscored the injustices surrounding incarceration.

During the Q&A, the panelists fielded questions from both von Dornum and the audience. In a surprising moment, von Dornum asked about innocence projects—what does it mean to defend innocent people who’ve been incarcerated due to mistaken identification, false confession, or even incompetent defense counsel? Smith said, “It’s tough. It can feel like you’re the only one standing in front of a terrible injustice.” Singleton spoke out for Tyra Patterson, a woman now locked up for nineteen years. He described how much more difficult it is to exonerate women, who often do not leave telltale DNA evidence. Smith emphasized that while innocence projects are important, there are still “factually guilty” people who will serve sentences for far longer than they should.

At the end, von Dornum asked what law students could do to prepare themselves to be public defenders. Steinberg quipped, “Do not intern at a prosecutor’s office.” Smith encouraged students to take advantage of the clinics at NYU and the opportunities available in New York City, including the Center for Constitutional Rights and the American Civil Liberties Union.

Though these panelists approached the central question from various angles, they all emphasized the client-centered attitude that makes the work of a public defender so rewarding.

Posted on October 7, 2013