By Paul Janczewski
After graduating from law school, Kenneth Sasse was hired to only write a single appellate brief for the Federal Defender Office (FDO) in Detroit.
“The joke was I was hired to write one brief, and as soon as I finished it, I would leave,” Sasse said. “But I’ve been there pretty much since then.”
Either he never finished that brief, or his supervisors there decided to keep him, because Sasse has spent the majority of his legal career at the FDO, in its Detroit and Flint offices.
“I’ve almost completed that brief,” Sasse said jokingly. “So 30 years later, I’m trying to get it done.”
Actually, Sasse, 63, has completed that brief, and much more, during his two separate stints at FDO. It was a career path that he never imagined while growing up in Midland.
“And I’ve wound up pretty much making a career out of it,” he said.
Sasse was one of four children in the family. His father worked in a factory, but his mom stayed home to raise the brood and got a job after Sasse completed his four years at Bullock Creek High School in 1966. He always planned on going to college and graduated from Michigan State University in 1970 with a degree in economics.
He then decided to go to law school. Sasse said there was never a single, defining moment that drew him to becoming a lawyer, and he did not know any attorneys growing up, but always thought it would be a “neat” thing to do with his life and “a pretty good occupation to have.”
He began at Wayne State University Law School, but after the first year he became discouraged and said, “I didn’t have much enthusiasm for the law.” He said sitting in classes such as property law, contract law and others “was not very interesting to me.”
But in subsequent years he relished criminal law classes and found a niche in criminal defense work. Sasse worked for a free legal aid clinic at Wayne State, and found that he could actually go into court and get his feet wet. He worked on divorces, landlord-tenant matters, and defended people on misdemeanor cases.
“I enjoyed representing real people, as opposed to law school, which is very theoretical and you were pretty far removed from actual cases,” Sasse said,
Sasse said this interaction with people and applying the law in real cases saved him.
“It probably kept me from saying, ‘Forget it, I don’t want to do this,’” he said.
After working at the free legal aid clinic part-time during the year and full time in the summers following his first year in law school, Sasse graduated in 1974 and it was time to find a real job. After passing the state bar examination, the FDO hired him to write that one brief for the 6th Circuit Court of Appeals. Sasse said the office was over worked, and he knew several people who worked there, who suggested him for the temporary position.
“Well, any job was good, but I was certainly happy there,” Sasse said. “There was a great group of people there.
I didn’t make a whole lot of money, but I made better than a starting law student, and enough to live on.”
Sasse said, “It was kind of a natural place for me to go.” And he fell into his future of criminal defense and away from any thoughts of being on the prosecution side.
“You actually are representing people who are in trouble and need help, some of whom are very grateful when you help them out, and some of whom are not, but it’s always the side I was more interested in,” he said.
The FDO, which began in 1972 and is approaching its 40th anniversary, has a rich history. Sasse said it originated pursuant to an act of Congress and basically handles all the appointed federal cases. The office has grown from one outlet in Detroit, defending cases from the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Michigan, and three or four attorneys to include an office in Flint, now headed by Sasse, and more than 15 total attorneys combined.
The FDO is somewhat similar to state court, which has a list of approved court-appointed attorneys. Sasse said if a defendant can’t afford to hire an attorney in a federal case, he or she is given someone from the FDO, or a lawyer from the approved list of panel attorneys, who must have federal court experience. Or they can hire a private attorney.
Similarly, the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Michigan has an FDO in Grand Rapids, and other federal district courts across the nation have community defender offices.
Sasse worked his way up the FDO ladder from doing research for trial attorneys to get cases of his own, fulfilling his goal of becoming a litigator. But in 1985 he left to strike out on his own with another attorney from the office.
The two shared an office with a local firm, and Sasse continued to represent federal defendants, and only occasionally taking a case in state court or a civil matter.
He got married in 1988 to his wife, Patricia, who he met through her brother. She was a teacher in Waterford, and recently retired from the Pontiac school system. Together, they have Patricia’s daughter, Kellie Goldstein, whom he adopted, and a son, Michael, a full-time student at Arizona State.
But Sasse, who lives in Clarkston, was drawn back when the Flint FDO opened in 1995. In part, he returned because of the family, and for a shorter commute from Detroit.
“But the bigger reason was working for an office like this I don’t have to deal with finances, collecting money, paying bills, worrying about the rent and utilities,” he said. “All I have to do is represent people, and I’m able to do legal work virtually 100 percent of the time.”
Sasse said he was glad to be back in the fold of the FDO.
“There is a sense of familiarity,” he said, working with the judges, U.S. attorneys and others he had grown to know. “We’ve got a comfort level here and I think they do with us, too, in terms of trust.”
Sasse said with the give and take of information that is important. But that trust does not mean blind faith with everything.
“It doesn’t mean they’re telling us everything they know, or we’re telling everything we know, but when we do communicate, we trust each other,” he said.
Technically, he does not work for the federal government, but for the Legal Aid and Defenders Association, a nonprofit corporation.
“Everyone deserves fair representation, and their day in court,” Sasse said. “They should have, and need to have somebody to make sure the outcome, the punishment, is fair.”
Sasse holds up a huge book of federal sentencing guidelines, and says there are a lot of gray areas in it that have led to hundreds of court decisions in interpreting it. He said defendants need the FDO help to ensure their case is handled properly.
“The U.S. Attorney’s Office is staffed by very capable people, numerous agents and agencies report to them and support them, and they’rebright, good people, but sometimes they’re wrong, or over zealous, and the person who is accused needs to have somebody with some expertise and abilities and support to be able to assemble an argument to allow the judge to see both sides of an issue,” he said.
Sasse knows the Federal Defender Office in Detroit perhaps better than most. Several years ago, he was asked to write an article for the Historical Society of the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Michigan, and came up with an 11-page article with more than 100 footnotes. It is the Bible for the court’s history.
Sasse shrugged off the accolades of such an enormous project.
“It was fun in that it gave me an excuse to contact a lot of people I hadn’t talked to in a long time,” he said.
Sasse said he would like to continue here for a few more years, and then become a panel defense attorney for Court of Appeals cases. He never had an end game in mind when he became a lawyer, but always figured he’d be a defense attorney.
“But I would not have guessed that I would wind up doing this for most of my life,” he said. “I still enjoy representing people.”
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