Recently I have received emails referring to my novel, Gideon’s Children, inquiring as to why I wrote it, and why I believe it is so very relevant to today’s happenings in our Criminal Justice System. The best answer to those questions, as well as several others that naturally flow from them, were set forth in a telephone interview I participated in with Renwei Chung, the brilliant young columnist for the highly popular and well regarded website, Above The Law.
Renwei and I connected through exchanges on Twitter, and after he read G.C., we agreed to a chat, which afterward was reduced to written form to insure accuracy. That format is what appears below, and most hopefully provides in-depth answers to the subject queries.
- What motivated you to write the book?
The current decade, 2010 to 2020, is the 50th anniversary of the 1960s and the Civil Rights Movement’s struggle for freedom and social justice. I wanted to highlight the role of the newly created Public Defenders Offices in fighting to protect individual constitutional rights in pursuit of justice, in particular for persons who are poor and of color, as part of that revolution, and because those very rights are under attack today due to the War on Terrorism which has spawned The Patriot Act, The No-Fly Rule, and virtually unrestricted spying on Americans by the FBI, CIA, and NSA.
- Tell me about your career, what motivated you to become a public defender?
Gideon v. Wainwright, which expanded the right to counsel when charged with a crime to persons unable to pay for same, was handed down by the U.S. Supreme Court in 1963, my first year in law school. And as I watched the Civil Rights Movement expand during 1964 and 1965, I realized that while the opportunity to participate in Freedom Rides and marches like Selma had passed, I could still join the struggle by becoming a Public Defender and fighting for justice in the courtroom through protecting individual constitutional rights and insuring that poor people and people of color were treated equally and fairly.
- How has the profession changed since you started?
When I began as a Public Defender in 1968, the U.S. Supreme Court under the leadership of Chief Justice Warren was focused on expanding the meaning and enforcement of constitutional rights, in particular, the 4th, 5th, and 6th Amendments. Today, the Court has a conservative bent under Chief Justice Roberts, and has grown more restrictive in interpreting those Amendments, making defense counsel’s job more difficult.
- What would you do differently if you could go back to any point in your career?
My years as a Public Defender during the late 1960s and early 1970s were the most rewarding years of my 30-year legal career, so I wouldn’t do anything differently with respect to that period. Looking back at the years spent in private practice afterward, the one change that I would make is to have become much more involved in my local bar association, as well as the state bar association, so as to advocate that both groups work harder in designing and executing programs that foster social justice in the private sector, and use their influence to lobby local and state governments to prioritize programs to alleviate poverty and inequality.
- What advice do you have for aspiring public-service attorneys?
If you are going to be a Public Defender, nourish your passion for justice, and remind yourself daily that the work you are doing is both noble and valuable. Representing a fellow human being who is charged with a crime, is lonely in the sense that you stand against the awesome power and resources of the State, and because the hostility focused against crime and your client spills over onto you, you will not be popular with the police authority, the prosecutor, court personnel, and often your own client. Therefore, it is essential that you maintain a strong sense of how noble and valuable your contribution is to our system of criminal justice is, so that you can fully appreciate the difficulty and the rewards of your work.
- What is the greatest injustice or discriminatory policy you believe we are fighting today? What are the biggest injustices we have overcome?
American society has a long history with the problem of race. It began with the importation of slavery at the time of Jamestown and the Pilgrims, and was further augmented with the extermination and subjugation of Native Americans. After 250 years of slavery and 150 more of Jim Crow, even though we achieved some progress during the Civil Rights Movement with the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965, this problem of race, of color, still bedevils our society, economically, politically, and in our Criminal Justice System. A few months ago, Nicholas Kristof in an Op-Ed raised and explored the question of: Isn’t Everyone a Little Bit Prejudiced? Inspired by his discussion, I explored the question in a Blog-Post on my author’s website on January 19th, and just yesterday in a speech, James B. Comey, director of the FBI stated: “Maybe it’s a fact we should also face: Everyone makes judgments based on race.”
We are all human beings: average citizens, political leaders, police officers, teachers, CEOs of international corporations, and so on. And as human beings, consciously or unconsciously, we all make judgments based on race, as well as many other factors such as good looks, gender, status symbols etc., but racial differences are at the top of the list for factors clouding our judgment. There is no easy solution to this problem, but what is necessary is for us to admit that this problem does exist, and for each of us to summon Lincoln’s better angels of our nature and remind ourselves daily to do better, to try harder to treat others as we ourselves would like to be treated.
- What made you successful in your career?
Two Ps: Passion and Perseverance. I believed wholeheartedly in protecting my clients’ constitutional rights and in doing everything I could to insure that they received fair and just treatment at all stages of the Criminal Justice System. And in pursuing justice for my clients, I prepared as assiduously as time permitted, spent much of my off-time reading and studying case and canon law, and in the courtroom followed a firm resolution to never, ever, give up, no matter how dark the outcome appeared.
- If you started today, what causes would you fight for?
As recent events from Ferguson to Cleveland to Los Angeles illustrate, the struggle for freedom and social justice that was highlighted during the tumultuous and transformative 1960s is still very much with us today, fueled by the historical legacy of racial bias. So if I started as a Public Defender today, I would still fight to protect my clients constitutional rights and make every effort to ensure that they received fair and just treatment at all stages of the Criminal Justice System.
In addition, as a member of the state bar association, I would work to move that association to exert its power to educate the public to the terrible danger to our democracy presented by the abrogation of our constitutional rights presented by The Patriot Act, the No-Fly Rule, and the virtually unrestricted spying on Americans by the FBI, the CIA, and the NSA,
- What is currently keeping you busy?
As part and parcel of publicizing Gideon’s Children., I am blogging on my author’s website (www.howardgfranklin.com) on the Criminal Justice System, its component parts, the problems it faces, along with possible solutions, in an effort to contribute to the growing conversation in this area.
10. What specifically can lawyers do to change the system? What can ordinary citizens do?
Lawyers can work through their state bar associations to advocate that the associations use their power and influence to press mayors, governors, and state legislatures to place improving the Criminal Justice System at the top of their list of priorities and provide the necessary funding for example to hire more Public Defenders so that their caseloads can be reduced to a level that allows time for full and proper representation. Recently, Governor Cuomo of New York requested their state legislature to provide substantial funds for this purpose, and state bar associations across the country need to lobby government officials for like funding. Likewise, additional funds must be provided to the various police authorities who provide extremely valuable services, and do so under dangerous conditions, so that they can: (1) Improve the training of officers, particularly in the area of dealing with mentally ill persons; and (2) Enlarge their efforts to meet with and better understand the communities they police, leading to a better understanding of the extremely difficult job officers perform, and hence more cooperation, thus building essential trust on both sides.
Average citizens can contribute to this effort by emailing and telephoning their governmental representatives to support the programs outlined above. And the value of thousands and thousands of emails pouring in to express support for such necessary funding of these programs should not be underestimated.
11. Anything else we should know about your book?
I wholeheartedly hope that my novel, Gideon’s Children, will make a positive contribution by educating its readers about the workings of our Criminal Justice System and the critical need to improve those workings, as well as the equal importance of protecting our individual constitutional rights in the face of their abrogation by The Patriot Act, the No-Fly Rule, and the virtually unrestricted spying on Americans by the FBI, the CIA, and the NSA.