Opinion: Public Defenders Deserve Basic Job Protections

Public Defenders
Sora Shimazaki/pexels.com photo.

Last year, public defenders in Maryland organized with our social worker and core staff colleagues to form the Maryland Defenders Union, Local 423 of AFSCME Council 3. This month our union will celebrate two milestones – one that is key to our history and one that is essential to our future.

The historical date is March 18 — Gideon Day. Almost 60 years ago, Clarence Earl Gideon was charged with burglary and could not afford a lawyer. He demanded counsel and was denied. After representing himself, he was convicted. He appealed to the Supreme Court, which — on March 18, 1963 — held that indigent people facing criminal charges have a constitutional right to a lawyer.

This ruling led to the creation of public defender offices nationwide.

In Maryland, the Office of the Public Defender was founded in 1972. Currently, OPD attorneys, core staff and social workers serve our clients in approximately 50 offices in 12 districts across the state. Our office has changed significantly in 40 years. What has not changed much since Mr. Gideon’s day, however, is the racism and classism entrenched in our criminal legal system.

Every day, public defenders serve clients who would not have been represented before Gideon v. Wainwright, and we still witness the routine injustices they face in the racist and classist system we help them navigate 58 years after that ruling. These realities reinforce our determination to zealously advocate for the thousands of indigent people who need representation in Maryland’s courts each year.

In Gideon v. Wainwright, the Supreme Court wrote, “There can be no equal justice where the kind of trial a man gets depends on the amount of money he has.” What the Supreme Court made clear is that public defenders are not luxuries. We are essential. We were essential workers even before there was public discourse about essential workers. We are essential to our clients. We are essential to the functioning of Maryland’s legal system. We are essential to our democracy.

Attorneys, social workers and core staff from the Maryland Office of the Public Defender organized as the Maryland Defenders Union to ensure that we can carry out our constitutionally mandated function. On March 4 and March 11, milestone dates essential to our future, we spoke up at hearings in the Maryland House and Senate about MDU’s key legislation — SB757/HB1277 — which will recategorize attorneys within the Office of the Public Defender as professional service employees with merit status rather than at-will appointees with no job protections.

We must be able to advocate for conditions that make our work possible and to do so without fear of retaliation. Our primary ethical obligation is to our clients. Basic job protections ensure that we can keep this singular focus, without fear of being fired, transferred, or demoted without cause or recourse.

In fact, the American Bar Association’s Standards on Public Defense states that “selection of the chief defender and staff should be made on the basis of merit. … Neither the chief defender nor staff should be removed except upon a showing of good cause.” In support of this, we are advancing our bill in the General Assembly — SB757/HB1277, which would classify OPD attorneys as professional employees, a status enjoyed by our fellow state employees with professional licenses and advanced degrees, including the licensed social workers within our own office.

The passage of this bill will ensure that public defenders, who fight daily for the most marginalized people in Maryland, can continue the promise the Supreme Court made to Mr. Gideon.

— MARCI TARRANT JOHNSON

The writer is president of Maryland Defenders Union Local 423, AFSCME Council 3.