Washington, DC (March 18, 2022) –On Public Defense Day 2022, NACDL Executive Director Lisa M. Wayne issued the following statement:
Across the country, attorneys representing poor people charged with criminal offenses contend with staggering workloads, inadequate support, and low pay. Added to these challenges is the fact that their service not only goes unappreciated but frequently gets weaponized by those who don’t understand or don’t value the carefully balanced adversarial system established by the U.S. Constitution and Bill of Rights. As we mark Public Defense Day and the historic nomination of Ketanji Brown Jackson, our nation should be celebrating the sacrifices that these attorneys make to preserve our cherished freedoms.
Few are aware that the only occupation listed in the Bill of Rights is criminal defense. Our founders not only saw the defense lawyer as essential to the justice-seeking process of criminal proceedings, but as an essential bulwark against government overreach. Defense lawyers have uncovered efforts to frame innocent persons, junk science and fraudulent crime laboratories, and deceitful informants. They ensure judges sentencing those convicted have the information needed to provide a punishment that is appropriate and work to connect individuals with critical services and supports. And they serve as zealous advocates for all who stand accused, regardless of their background or their crime. In fact, it is the defense attorney’s willingness to stand by every person who stands accused, regardless of the nature of the accusation or offense, that allows our legal system to pursue its claim of providing equal justice under the law.
Criminal defense is one of our nation’s highest callings, and to assert that anyone who has answered that calling is unsuited for the federal bench is an assault on the core of our country’s values and institutions. Those who have attacked Judge Jackson’s background representing individuals accused of crimes or held at the Guantanamo Bay detention camp certainly know better. To paraphrase John Adams, who agreed to represent the British soldiers charged in the Boston Massacre, representing individuals accused of notorious offenses is perhaps the best service one can render to their country.
Those called to our nation’s highest court are asked to embody our highest ideals, to "support and defend the Constitution" and to "do equal right to the poor and to the rich." No one represents these responsibilities more than the criminal defense attorney. It is defenders who advocate to protect core constitutional rights from government overreach and abuse and stand up to give voice to those marginalized by society to ensure the justice system works for everyone.
As we look ahead to the confirmation hearings next week, one thing is certain: Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson possesses the immense legal skills, temperament, and diverse life experience to strengthen our nation’s highest court. And because she has been one of us, fighting for justice in the trenches in a system that doesn’t always treat defenders with respect, she has also developed the ability to fend off attacks on the role of defenders in the criminal legal system. NACDL joins its members across the country in celebrating our colleagues who have chosen the path of public defense and looks forward to seeing one of our own sworn in as a Supreme Court Justice.