By now if you’re in or around Knoxville you’ve probably heard about my incendiary remarks to the Indigent Representation Task Force. You may have read the Knoxville News-Sentinel article regarding Chairman William Koch’s attempts at backpedaling on a letter he sent me in February, claiming any attempts to raise rates of funding for indigent defense attorneys would be dead on arrival. If you read Simple Justice or Fault Lines, you’ve seen the coverage of the “Listening Tour’s” stop and know I looked Bill Koch in the eye and told him the entire Task Force was a “sham,” designed to create the veneer of caring while doing as little as possible to fund indigent defense. Someone had to do this, because none of you would.
When the legislature announced the “Indigent Representation Task Force,” everyone said “Great job” and held out hope things might actually change. I have five years worth of material proving it wouldn’t, and I called the task force out on it. When they got upset and responded to me, I tried to be as civil as possible regarding the entire matter until I learned the amount of work the Task Force wanted to accomplish would amount to no change at all, since our state’s legislature cares more about criminalizing its citizens and saving money for taxpayers than ensuring every person accused of a crime gets a full, fair, effective defense.
When I prepared to speak on the issue, I had a few attorneys reach out to me and plead I don’t take the “Task Force” to task. “Don’t do this,” said one attorney. “This is Chief Justice Lee’s baby, and she’s really keen on making things better.”
Turns out that was complete bullshit, as evidenced by Jamie Satterfield’s ability to make the Tennessee Supreme Court Chief Justice double down on Bill Koch’s special brand of stupid.
I had to start my practice with indigent defense work. If you don’t get an offer at a big law firm, or an offer at all, then you’re going to the trenches and practicing indigent defense. It’s how you try cases. It’s how you learn to be a better lawyer from the start. You learn from your mistakes and you move forward, but the judges start to know you and what you’re capable of doing. The DAs and States’ attorneys know more when you do indigent work, because they’ll see how you handle negotiations versus an outright plea deal. It’s a cornerstone for young attorneys, and they get shafted for it.
Tennessee’s rates are only slightly better than Wisconsin’s for court-appointed work. When you compare that with Dean Strang’s analysis, it amounts to kicking money to the State to prosecute your clients. When you take that rate, and then you see your state attempt to cut the rate through asinine systems like preferential contract court appointed attorneys, then you start getting into a system that violates the law, the Constitution, and forces judges into violations of the Canons of Judicial Conduct.
In 2011, when the contract system was first floated, we stopped that through a national campaign. In 2013, we shrugged, because we knew the State would do whatever the hell it wanted through the Administrative Office of the Courts. All this time, people grumbled about how lawyers and their clients were getting screwed. People would get on Facebook and leave a #RaiseTheRates hash tag. They’d privately talk about studies the Tennessee Bar Association conducted. They’d grumble. But no one did a damn thing.
Why didn’t you have the guts to say something besides a quiet grumble to your brothers and sisters in the local Bar association? Was it out of fear you might get an adverse ruling from a judge? Were you afraid Dwight Tarwater might use his connections to Governor Haslam to make sure you were run out of business? Was the thought of upsetting Justice Lee too much for you? Or maybe you’re comfortable in a salaried job and just didn’t care what happened. You agreed it was better to keep people as numbers instead of treating them as actual humans.
You were afraid of what might happen, and that prevented actual change.
Did you not see those in power would exploit your fear? Did you not think for one second they wouldn’t exploit that by making you act civil to them and offer suggestions they wouldn’t even give the time of day? They’re the ones holding the purse strings, and they already told you before this “listening tour” started there’d be no more funding. Yet you held out hope, and were nice, because you feared them.
The Task Force needed someone to fear, consequences be damned, if the Sixth Amendment is to mean anything in the Volunteer State. I took that cause up because I don’t want the younger lawyers starting in Juvenile Court or Misdemeanor Sessions getting shafted because of “taxpayer savings.” So I orchestrated a plan, with the help of someone I’m honored and privileged to call a mentor and friend. That plan embarrassed the Task Force nationally, and we’re not done yet.
Now I am the New Face of Fear for the Indigent Representation Task Force. I guarantee you I have no invitations to dinner parties at Bill Koch’s house forthcoming. Dwight Tarwater won’t be asking me for donations to Governor Haslam’s re-election campaign. I probably will suffer a few economic consequences for calling “bullshit” on their sham campaign to make people think they care about your constitutional rights.
But they’re scared. The public knows there’s deception afoot. And when the public knows they’re being lied to, it can get pretty ugly for those lying.
I’ll keep hammering at this until change occurs, because Gideon means something to this angry, redneck, small town lawyer.