Thursday, June 27, 2013

Unusual Shoes

I fill unusual shoes at the Cuyahoga County Public Defenders Office in Cleveland, Ohio. On paper, I'm currently assigned to Housing Court (Yes, housing court is a criminal court, and homeowners cited for violations can go to jail; therefore, they should be entitled to free legal advice from a qualified, concerned lawyer if they are determined indigent), but, I'm also known as "The Floater." I fill in the gaps of coverage when our underfunded, understaffed Municipal Division is particularly short on available lawyers. I'm also the fixer, when other lawyers run into problems with clients, I assume representation in the matter. I'm also the replacement, when lawyers get thrown out of a courtroom for their (alleged) insolence or intransigence or incompetence, or whatever the personality clash was that resulted in me taking over. I step in, as if emerging from the dizzy brown slats of the Justice Center's courtroom walls, much to the surprise of a scared client or a curious gallery of citizens. I fill in, pouring my conscience into my advocacy in the stormy sea of poverty and ignorance and prejudice (people have lots of prejudices against public defenders and the court and each other) and addiction and mental illness -- all fundamental issues to a just society -- and I surf the waves of problems of others until I reach the beach.

And I don't just solve problems for clients. Often, I'm solving the judge's problem of moving a crowded docket. I solve security problems by keeping clients calm and moving jail populations in a safe, swift manner. I solve prosecutor's and cop's and victim's problems when I broker a result where others failed. In fact, there's rarely a client or spectator that isn't impressed with my demeanor and results. I don't always "win," but sports metaphors have no business in this improvisational moral theater you call the criminal justice system, anyway. Right?

Each day, I live out a philosophy of public service: that you judge a society by how it treats the least among its citizens. I do it with wit and candor and wisdom earned by helping the poor. I think the court system, specifically the Cleveland Municipal Court system is THE PLACE to address the problems of the poor, since they get arrested so much. It is THE PLACE to intervene in violent families, drug-addled behaviors, alcoholism, dementia, psychosis, hoarding, ignorance, racism, homelessness, etc. It is THE PLACE to provide access to mental health services, substance abuse services, job readiness.

And it is THE PLACE to breathe life into the constitutional rights of our lowest citizens. Even if every other goal fails, we must still make poor folks' First Amendment, Fourth Amendment, Fifth Amendment, Sixth Amendment, Eighth Amendment rights as strong as those of the aristocracy.

I'm running for judge, now. As of today. I've filed petitions to sit among the judges before whom I now practice. While I never expected to get rich helping the poor, circumstance compels me to grab this opportunity to be the most qualified candidate in this race. I don't know what kind of judge I'd be, but I assure all who know me that my desire to serve this great city is somewhere between a sacred duty and a moral compulsion.

I'm not taking any campaign contributions. I'm rejecting party politics. Judicial candidates should know the court system they aspire to control, they should be inside it for many years to observe what works and what doesn't. They shouldn't be well-connected party insiders with debts to settle or axes to grind. I wholly support the Judicial Candidates Ratings Coalition's process for scrutinizing judicial candidates, irrespective of name. I'd love to debate how money and politics (and corruption) have obscured the true aim of a judicial selection process -- the most qualified candidate for the job.