Campaign for Justice Plight of public defenders focus of Law Day program

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By Paul Janczewski

Legal News

From the simplest shoplifter to the most heinous mass murderer, everyone accused of committing a crime is guaranteed the right to an attorney's representation in court.

And that fundamental right is being highlighted in communities across the country in celebration of Law Day activities.

The theme for this year's Law Day, announced by the American Bar Association, is "The Legacy of John Adams: From Boston to Guantanamo," and events were centered around that idea.

In Genesee County, the local bar association kicked off its annual celebration April 29 with a luncheon that featured keynote speaker Laura Sager, executive director of Michigan Campaign for Justice. During her 20-minute address, Sager spoke of her campaign's mission, the plight of public defenders in Michigan, and the goal of pushing for legislative reforms to ensure that the rights of all defendants are protected.

Law Day was established in 1958 by President Dwight D. Eisenhower at the urging of the ABA to recognize the country's commitment to the rule of law. In the years that followed, Law Day has been the perfect opportunity for many local bar association's to honor the profession, educate the public and make school children aware of the importance of law.

Tatalia Y. Burroughs, executive director of the Genesee County Bar Association, called Law Day "very important."

"It helps the younger generation to know what to expect from the law," she said.

For years, the GCBA has invited area high school teams to participate in mock trials, with students serving as prosecutors, defense attorneys and jurors in selected made-up "cases" before real five Genesee County Circuit and Family Division Courts judges. Teams from nine area schools were given facts of their case weeks earlier and prepared with the assistance from teachers or attorney advisors.

Justin Blake, a teacher at Grand Blanc High School who has 13 students participating in the mock trials, said "this is extremely important for students to get out and see how the legal system works." And Burroughs agreed.

"The students learn that people deserve a defense, and it also helps them know what attorneys do and what judges do, and their roles in our legal system," Burroughs said.

The GCBA also participates in other Law Day related activities, such as Senior Outreach and Teens and the Law, where lawyers visit senior citizen centers and schools to discuss specific law-related issues.

At the luncheon, about 250 students, teachers, attorneys and others gathered to not only listen to Sager, but to also honor others and their contributions to the law. Arlene Sparks, of the Genesee County Community Action Resource Department, was presented the Golden Apple Award for her work in promoting law-related education, and Jan Praefke, now retired from the Genesee County Prosecutor's office, was presented the Crime Victims' Advocate award.

And the prestigious Liberty Bell Award, given for efforts to promote law-related awareness, was given to Genesee County Circuit Court Administrator Barbara A. Menear. The Genesee County Board of Commissioners also issued a proclamation to her, honoring her work over the years as an attorney, administrator, overseeing a court restoration project, merging the civil and family divisions in the Genesee County courts, and also being in charge of its public defender program.

But the bulk of the program centered around John Adams, the second U.S. president, and our country's first attorney to hold that spot. Both Sager and Menear used his example of defending British soldiers, years before he was elected as President, who were accused of firing into a crowd of protestors and killing five colonists in the Boston massacre.

Adams adhered to the rule of law and defense of those accused even in cases where the defendant is Public Enemy No. 1 and representing those clients could generate unpopular public controversy.

"He stands as a shining example of lawyers committed to the rules of law and the defense of the accused," Menear said. "The lawyer in him knew that the British deserved a defense."

Sager spoke of several landmark cases where unpopular defendants were defended by public defenders who did less than their best legal work for their clients, including the Scottsboro boys case in which convictions of nine African-American teens who allegedly raped a white woman led to a U.S. Supreme Court ruling on the right to counsel for people who could not afford an attorney. The Supreme Court also ruled that their unprepared, unqualified attorneys failed to mount any real defense, which violated their rights.

"The legal rational (in that case) has become the constitutional foundation for virtually every subsequent case extending the scope of the right to counsel in America," she said.

The Campaign for Justice is a broad-based group of more than 70 organizations and 3,000 individuals in Michigan pushing for a fair and effective public defense system. Sager said legislative reform is necessary to improve the system for adults facing criminal charges and youth in juvenile delinquency proceedings by ensuring their Constitutional right to counsel.

She said the organization hopes to see legislation that implements a public defense system that meets minimum national standards, and obtains state funding for it.

"Innocence should be protected," Sager said.

But that has become increasingly difficult in Michigan, due to budget cuts and the economy, which has ravaged the public defender system.

Sager said the state established its public defender system in 1857, the first state to do so.

"But since then, Michigan has fallen woefully behind the majority of states that have state funding and statewide standards for their systems," she said.

In the last few years, Sager said Michigan has become the focus of national reports and lawsuits over fees, earning a reputation for having one of the worst public defense systems in the nation. But the Campaign for Justice has been working tirelessly to turn that trend around.

"Years of efforts by Michigan advocates to get our legislature to pay attention to the problem finally paid off in 2008," Sager said, when a report conducted by the National Legal Aid and Defender Association found numerous problems with the state's public defender system, such as lawyers being appointed to cases without being qualified, and failure to properly prepare for trial or sentencing. Add in "chronic and severe under-funding," Sager said, and you have a system that "fails tax payers..defendants...and those who must rely on it to uphold their 6th amendment Constitutional right to counsel."

Those failure have also seen innocent people sent to prison. "The best solution to our public defense crisis is to ensure comprehensive legislative reform," Sager said.

Sager said the Campaign is working for that reform by educating the public, and policy makers, for reform. She said the Michigan House Judiciary Committee convened a hearing on a comprehensive reform bill, which was thwarted by the fiscal crisis, but factions in legal and legislative circles continue to push for reform.

"The legislative effort will continue," Sager promised. "We are picking up steam."

Sager said "progress is being made," and the public defender system remains a crucial part of our legal system. "Every day defense attorneys who represent often very unpopular indigent defendants do a great service to our state and the cause of justice."

Sager urged all current and future attorneys to join the Campaign and the State Bar "in the fight to make Michigan's public defender system one that is truly worthy of John Adams."

Menear also addressed the problem while accepting her Liberty Bell award - an award that started in Genesee County and is now a national recognition. She gave a shout-out to many attorneys in Genesee County who have participated in the local public defender system "with zealous representation of the rights of the accused."

Menear also said the Law Day events, geared toward younger people, is an important part of the big picture.

"We like to see the kids participate in the court system in a constructive way," she said. "They need to learn that it still matters what their country stands for, and that there are people here fighting to enforce the rule of law."

Citing the attorneys who represented the Guantanamo detainees, much of it through pro bono work, Menear said many local attorneys stand in John Adams shadow by taking court-appointed cases "for too little compensation and too little respect."

Menear knows of what she speaks. She once was one of those public defenders.

Published: Fri, May 13, 2011

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