From the President: Gratitude for Being a Criminal Defense Lawyer

By Chris Adams, NACDL President

April 2021 issue of The Champion

If it were easy being a criminal defense lawyer, anyone could do it. Of course, there are spectacular days when we win justice for our clients. But there are also days when we leave the courthouse bloodied, dejected, and feeling alone. In the heaviness of those tough days, I try to practice gratitude for the opportunity to be a criminal defense lawyer and for our criminal defense community. I would like to share two stories that help put me in the gratitude mindset in the hope that my stories may conjure some of your own.

First, roughly 15 years ago, I was talking with a valued friend and great lawyer who was the director of a capital defense office in Louisiana. At the time, I was a full-time capital defense lawyer and the director of a capital defense office in Georgia. During this conversation, this great lawyer and I ended up talking about what we would do once the death penalty experiment finally ends in America.

Her plan was to teach literacy to children in a Lower Ninth Ward housing community in New Orleans. She explained that she had worked with communities in housing complexes in New Orleans before becoming a lawyer and went to law school to provide more help to the neglected communities in her city. She looked forward to helping children read once she was freed from dealing with the death penalty.

She then turned to me and asked, “What will you do?” Suddenly feeling like a Miss America contestant, I felt immense pressure to have some great humanitarian answer. I had spent so much time and energy in becoming a competent capital defense lawyer that it was hard for me to imagine a professional life after abolition. After thinking about it for a minute or two, I replied, “I’ll be in a magistrate courtroom somewhere demanding six jurors to resolve someone’s misdemeanor charge.”

The more time that has passed from that conversation, the more I like my answer. The point that I was hoping to make is that while I care deeply about beating the death penalty for my clients, playing some small role in helping to end the death penalty in this great country, and working for social justice, at my core, I am a criminal defense lawyer. Rain or shine, great days or bad, I feel honored to stand up in the well of any courtroom to fight for the accused.

Second, when I was a young public defender, we would be assigned a new chief judge to preside over our circuit’s criminal courts every six months. In a system peculiar to South Carolina, half the time the new presiding judge would be on loan from another part of the state. Most of the visiting presiding judges would passively allow the criminal courts to run like they always did. Occasionally, however, we would be assigned a presiding judge who aspired to “fix” what he considered to be “problems” of the criminal court system in his few short weeks in Charleston. Back in those days, the self-proclaimed “reformers” invariably came up with plans that prioritized efficiency over fairness.

Once, we were assigned a new chief judge who didn’t like presiding over bond reconsideration motions. Technically, under the court rule, the defense had to show a change of circumstance to qualify for a reconsideration. The rule had been laxly applied through the years for several valid reasons. First, the original bonds were set by a magistrate judge who, in Charleston in the 1990s, was a nonlawyer known for setting indefensibly high bonds. Additionally, indigent defendants were unrepresented at the initial appearances, and there were no transcripts for the initial bond settings. For these reasons, the culture had evolved to give little deference to the initial bond and to hear all reconsideration motions.

Our new presiding judge, however, began a crusade against these “reconsideration” motions. He denied hearings when counsel failed to allege a change of circumstance in the written motion. And even when he permitted hearings, the judge refused to address the merits whenever counsel was unable to show that the magistrate who set the bond had not heard the “new” information. Worse yet, the chief judge enacted a policy that instructed the other judges in the circuit to follow his lead.

All of the men and women who were presumed innocent yet unable to post bond suffered under this chief judge. Defendants without resources were in a particularly difficult bind since they had been unrepresented at the initial appearance and were without transcripts to prove what circumstances had been made known to the magistrate judge in the initial bond setting.

My colleagues in the public defender office were outraged by the new policy. We met, researched, and brainstormed ways to push back. One of my colleagues suggested, “This judge isn’t listening to us. To fix this problem, we have to get the private bar to talk with him.” We agreed on a plan to enlist a couple of prominent criminal defense lawyers in private practice to talk with the visiting chief judge in hope that their voices might be heard.

I was assigned to reach out to one of the prominent criminal defense lawyers in the area. When we spoke, he told me how upset he was with the judge’s new policy. He remarked that the judge had refused to get to the merits of his most recent bond motion because the court thought there had not been a sufficient change of circumstance. Before I could ask him to lead a group to intervene with the judge, he expressed his faith in public defenders as the best advocates for getting this policy revoked since we are in court every day doing the heavy lifting.

Ultimately, the problem was fixed when a public defender and a couple of private lawyers shared their concerns with the visiting judge. What has stuck with me for more than two decades is that the criminal defense bar is strongest when we not only recognize each other’s strengths but also when we stand and fight together. We maximize our impact when we are united. We effect change when we join forces and all defendants benefit. We have the honor of being part of a whole whose sum is far greater than its parts.

It has been a high honor — one that definitely goes on my “gratitude list” — to serve as your president during this COVID-riddled year. This year, more than most, brought unprecedented and seemingly insurmountable challenges for us and for our clients. This year has had more than its fair share of heavy days. There will, of course, be heavy days in the future. But we can always respond by reflecting on our noble profession and our community of defenders to achieve a mindset of gratitude that keeps us putting one foot in front of the other on our way to another day at the courthouse.

About the Author

After spending 15 years as a public defender and nonprofit lawyer, Chris Adams (NACDL LIFE MEMBER) opened his private practice in 2007. He devotes half of his practice to defending men and women facing the death penalty in federal and state courts throughout the country. He also defends people and businesses facing allegations or investigations in federal and state courts.

© 2021, National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers. All rights reserved. This article originally appeared in The Champion magazine and is reprinted with permission.

National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers