Mississippi Judge Bars Public Defenders from Representing Clients

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Mississippi Judge Bars Public Defenders from Representing Clients

Authorities are disregarding the rights of our most vulnerable citizens. (Photo: Bob Jagendorf / creative commons)

Congressman Bennie Thompson (D-MS) is asking the Department of Justice to investigate recent events in Hinds County, Mississippi, where a judge is refusing to allow public defenders to represent their clients in his court.

Judge Jeffrey Weill seems to believe public defenders should be more deferential to him and less passionate in the representation of their clients.  Apparently disapproving of the zealous advocacy of one public defender, Judge Weill removed her from all of her cases and, according to Public Defender Michelle Harris, to identify any specific behavior that violated the lawyer’s professional obligations to her clients, or the court.  In doing so he has disrespected the right to counsel for the poor. When the Hinds County public defender office refused to abandon those they are charged with serving, and collectively resisted Judge’s Weill’s attempts to further interfere with their representation of clients, he held an attorney and the head of the office in contempt.

This case is yet another example of local authorities disregarding the rights of our most vulnerable citizens.  It should leave every person who is concerned about justice troubled.  Wielding power to interfere with fundamental rights of the least powerful is exactly what our Founding Fathers feared the most.  Few things could be less consistent with what our Constitution demands of those given the privilege to preside as judge.  Many of us are a paycheck away from needing the services of the public defender should we be wrongly accused of a crime.  The citizens of Hinds County are fortunate to have a public defender willing to fight for their constitutional rights.  They should demand their judges do the same.

Our Founding Fathers valued liberty above all else, and in the 6th Amendment guaranteed every individual a lawyer to ensure a fair fight, whenever liberty was at stake. In a nation committed to equal justice, the public defender is essential to ensuring that one’s ability to protect his or her fundamental rights does not depend on income.

Sadly, public defenders are often not given the respect and support they need to protect the most vulnerable among us.  Since our poorest citizens are prosecuted and punished more than those with means, true justice remains elusive.  For every person accused of a crime who can pay for a lawyer, four more are too destitute to do so.  Public defenders are left to fight back against a system that has accepted an embarrassingly low standard of “justice” for the poor.

No one should respect the critical role of defense counsel more than a judge.  Judges should be committed to protecting the most marginalized and supporting those who advocate for them.  But some judges, like Judge Weill, apparently think the courtroom belongs to them, rather than the public.  They think they can dictate how a lawyer defends her client and somehow still be impartial.  That kind of behavior is a great threat our democracy.

This case is particularly shameful, but it is hardly unique. Across the country we see judges who abuse their power at the expense of the powerless, and only when public defenders are treated with the respect and dignity they deserve can this situation be corrected.

Jonathan Rapping

Jonathan Rapping was awarded a 2014 MacArthur “Genius” Fellowship for his work with Gideon’s Promise, the organization he founded along with his wife, Ilham Askia. He is also an Associate Professor of Law at Atlanta’s John Marshall Law School. He is currently serving as the Director of Strategic Planning and Organizational Development for the Maryland Office of the Public Defender as Gideon’s Promise and Maryland embark on a partnership to improve criminal justice in that state.

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