By Sheila Pursglove
Criminal law is a great specialty — but can exact a hard toll on attorneys.
“You get to have real clients and tackle real and important issues,” says Professor Eve Brensike Primus, who teaches criminal law, criminal procedure, and habeas corpus at the University of Michigan Law School. “The hardest thing is the emotional toll — we really want public defenders who care about what happens to their clients, but if you care too much, the job will kill you. Finding that happy balance is hard.”
A recipient of the U-M 2009 L. Hart Wright Prize for Outstanding Teaching, Primus has co-mingled teaching and practice throughout her career. As a public defender, she trained new public defenders. As a professor, she often works on pro bono criminal matters.
“I like teaching because I have the opportunity to teach students to become real advocates while also teaching them about the importance of giving back to the community and thinking about the lives of the less fortunate,” Primus says. “If I can do both of those things, I can send a bunch of really talented lawyers out to make the world a better place.
“Michigan Law is a great place to do that both because we have incredibly talented students and because we have a tradition of really caring about public service.”
Her own career track originated in childhood, after watching her uncle, a prosecutor, at the verdict-reading stage of a criminal assault trial. When the jury foreperson read the guilty verdict out loud, the defendant turned toward the jury and began to cry. Afterwards, Primus peppered her uncle with questions: “You’re putting that man in jail? How do you know he did this bad thing? Were you there? Did you see it?”
“I eventually badgered my uncle to such an extent that he sat me down in his law library and said, ‘If you’re so interested in the law, read about it.’ So I did. And thus a public defender was born.”
After receiving a bachelor’s degree in psychology from Brown University, the Maryland native worked as a criminal investigator for the Public Defender Service in Washington, D.C. She earned her law degree, summa cum laude, from Michigan Law, where she was an articles editor for The Michigan Law Review, a board member for the Henry M. Campbell Moot Court Competition, and the winner of the Henry M. Bates Memorial Scholarship Award, the U-M Law School’s highest honor.
She clerked in the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit in Los Angeles, then enjoyed several years in the Maryland Office of the Public Defender, working both as a trial attorney and as an appellate litigator, and appearing several times before the state’s highest court. She shares some of the “human drama” stories from her courtroom days with her U-M students.
“I love litigation — I think it’s challenging, exhilarating, and humbling all at the same time,” Primus says. “But more importantly, I love fighting for people who had never had anyone in their lives fight for them before.
“I believe all people — rich or poor, black or white — should have the same rights and opportunities. Unfortunately, that’s not always the way things play out in the real world. It feels good to be a part of ensuring that rights are enforced for everyone.”
Primus, who has given legislative testimony and helped to draft proposed legislation on criminal justice issues, also writes about structural reform in the criminal justice system; including the recently published “The Illusory Right to Counsel,” and forthcoming “A Crisis in Federal Habeas Law.” She also is joining one of the nation’s leading criminal procedure casebooks: Kamisar, LaFave, Israel, King, Kerr, and Primus, “Modern Criminal Procedure: Cases, Comments and Questions, 13th ed. American Casebook Series,” to be published this summer.
Her husband, Richard, is also a professor on the U-M Law School faculty, teaching constitutional law. The couple has a 4-year-old-daughter and a 19-month-old son.
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