Word that U.S. District Judge Janet Arterton will soon take senior status makes this a good time to ask Senators Richard Blumenthal and Christopher Murphy why it is that no criminal defense lawyer ever makes the cut for nomination to the federal bench. It’s been so long since a defender was nominated that the failure cannot be explained away as insignificant.
The latest appointee to the bench, Jeffrey Meyer, was a former federal prosecutor and law professor. There is no question that he is qualified to serve, and that he has the demeanor necessary to inspire confidence in the court. But the same can be said of hundreds of lawyers in the state, and it could just as easily be said of many criminal defense lawyers. Meyer was sworn in just the other day.
There’s a scramble on to fill Arterton’s slot now, and rumor has it that the secret committee vetting candidates has produced a list of potential nominees. Three of the four top spots are occupied either by federal prosecutors or a senior member of the state Attorney General’s Office. In other words, once again, the committee appears interested only in people with a conventional “law enforcement” background.
I’ve never understood why criminal defense lawyers are not regarded as law enforcement as well. We are viewed as second-class citizens by the courts. It is evident in such seemingly trifling things as the requirement that criminal defense lawyers, but not prosecutors, be required to remove their belts and otherwise genuflect for court security officers before entering a federal courthouse. Prosecutors, on the other hand, are waived through.
Tell me, if you or a loved one were accused of a crime, where would you to go to assure that your rights were protected? To a criminal defense lawyer, that’s where. These lawyers stand in the well of the court making sure that both the prosecution and the court respect the rights of the accused. The role of a criminal defense lawyer, as both advocate and officer of the court, is to assure that the law is obeyed, one accusation at a time. Systemic disregard of their contributions is an insult not to be borne lightly.
Yet we tolerate such disregard, and even welcome it.
Consider the U.S. Senate’s utterly pusillanimous and disgusting treatment of Debo Adegbile’s nomination to head the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division. He was rejected by a vote of 52-47. Primary among the reasons for his rejection is that he had helped prepare a brief in defense of Mumia Abu-Jamal, a journalist and former Black Panther convicted of killing a Philadelphia police officer. Adegbile signed on to Mumia’s defense while working for the NAACP Legal Defense Fund.
Let me see if I understand this: Appearing as counsel for the accused, the convicted, the scorned and the damned renders a lawyer unfit for appointment to a federal office? I suppose that explains why former prosecutors are greeted with open arms. Why is the Senate so wary of those who make a living vindicating the presumption of innocence? Why the disregard of a man whose only apparent failing was that he refused to stop fighting for a client who still had the right to appear in court?
There are good, even great, defense lawyers in Connecticut who would make outstanding federal judges. I’ve never understood why Bill Bloss has not been appointed. I noted the other day that Steven Ecker accepted a state appointment. I am aware of several other defense who have been interviewed, but not sent on to the president for consideration as a nominee. Why not Hope Seeley, now a state court judge?
Why the systemic refusal to consider a criminal defense lawyer as a federal judge? Why so many prosecutors? The next nomination should address this shortcoming, or, in the sake of intellectual honesty, the Senators ought simply to declare that criminal defense lawyers need not apply.•