Criminal defense vs. “social justice”

A recent communiqué from HR casually let fall that we’re now a “social justice organization” dedicated to the interests of “the most vulnerable.”

And all these years we thought we were a public defender! We feel like the hero of Kafka’s “Metamorphosis” who woke up one morning to find himself turned into a giant beetle.

As an appellate squawk, we represent people convicted of crimes. Sometimes we think they might be innocent or that what they did shouldn’t be a crime, but  we’re still not going to enter them into any “most vulnerable” contest.  You want vulnerable, go read the Brooklyn DA’s press handouts about crime victims. Just kidding, don’t go near them.

As for “justice,” that’s exactly what we’re defending our clients against. “Bringing to justice,” “obtaining justice,” etc. are gassy expressions for prosecution and punishment. The Italians are more candid: giustiziare means putting to death.  Tacking “social” onto it doesn’t make it less retributive. Might as well put a hat on a piranha. As Hamlet said, “Use every man after his desert and who should ‘scape whipping?” We try to help our clients escape whipping, deserving or not.

How would a defense lawyer look plumping for social justice?

DEFENSE COUNSEL: The machete allegedly found on my client should be suppressed as the fruit of an unlawful search. The officer testified that his only reason for stopping him was that he was wearing a Red Sox cap.

PROSECUTOR: We concede there’s no possible interpretation of the Fourth Amendment that could justify the search. But the defendant had the machete hidden in his jacket while walking around the hallway of a public housing project inhabited by itty-bitty little children, marginalized women and the gaga elderly.

DEFENSE COUNSEL: Golly, I guess the interests of the vulnerable come first.

COURT: You bet. Suppression denied.


DEFENSE COUNSEL:  The statute requires the indictment to be dismissed if the People aren’t ready for trial within 180 days without good cause. Since it’s now the 181st day, my client is entitled to dismissal.

PROSECUTOR: We candidly admit the delay is due solely to our laziness and incompetence. But the defendant was caught shooting into the window of a bodega, thereby offending the dignity of huddled masses yearning to breathe free.

DEFENSE COUNSEL: Well, I certainly don’t want to be a xenophobe. We’ll let it go this time.


DEFENSE COUNSEL: I move to preclude any testimony about my client’s prior record, pursuant to People v. Rodriguez.

COURT: What does Rodriguez say?

DEFENSE COUNSEL: How should I know? The point is, my client belongs to a marginalized, powerless, historically underrepresented group.

PROSECUTOR: So does the victim.

DEFENSE COUNSEL: Oh, yeah? What supposedly powerless group does your so-called victim belong to?

PROSECUTOR: Dead people.

DEFENSE COUNSEL: Oh. Okay, you win.

Moral: If you need to wear a halo, don’t go into criminal defense.

About Appellate Squawk

A satirical blog for criminal defense lawyers and their friends who won't give up without a squawk.
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22 Responses to Criminal defense vs. “social justice”

  1. Scott Jacobs says:

    “we’re now a “social justice organization” dedicated to the interests of “the most vulnerable.””

    What. The actual. Fuck?

    What raving, thundering MORON made THAT decision? What staggering incompetent, what disingenuous TOOLBAG, thinks this is a mission statement worth having?

    No. Wait. Don’t answer.

    I have a really, REALLY good idea.

    I weep for you, Squawk. I weep for you.


  2. Wasserman, Roy says:

    You’d be right if we WERE merely a public defender organization. We are not. You’d be on solid ground if you had argued that the organization is inherently in conflict with itself, and that we should be strictly a public defender. Your current point is incoherent because we are NOT merely a public defender.

    By representing the poor in almost all matters, we represent clients on multiple sides of issues. We are an all purpose not-for-profit public interest law firm for the indigent. Because all of our clients are poor, they are vulnerable. Because the poor are treated badly by the CJS, the JRS, and the civil legal systems, there is in fact a social justice piece.

    There is a strong argument, however, that public defenders should not be attached to other arms of a law firm for the very reasons you state. The social justice of NYCHA residents represented by our housing lawyers, e.g., might be in conflict with getting our client’s gun suppressed in an alleged shooting in that building where NYCHA is trying to evict him and his family. There are many other examples. CDP is in an unholy alliance frequently with CIvil and JRD. It doesn’t help that Civil depends on the goodwill of donors. This leads to another suppression – of CDP’s advertising its successes and funding needs, for fear of losing support for Civil.

    But as long as we’re a full-service law firm for the poor, they have no choice but to advocate for social justice. Otherwise they’d be mis-serving their immigrant clients, eviction clients, child clients, etc. The CDP clients generally must be represented by lawyers who are charged ethically with guidelines different from our colleagues. CDP promotes justice in that the Constit. demands we act zealously on behalf of criminal defendants. Is it social justice? That’s another question.

    Sent from my iPhone


    • Scott Jacobs says:

      So let’s say some Poor White Trash (it’s OK, my dad was PWT when he was growing up, he says I can use “his term”) cis guy is accused of raping a deaf, African American, transgender woman…

      The “social justice” mission would appear to conflict with trying to stand between the full weight of the State and the client. Which one do you care about most; your concept of social justice, or the rights of the accused?


    • Roy – It’s true they’ve done some great class actions resulting, for instance, in requiring the City to shelter the homeless. But the slogan “social justice” has taken on a pointlessly divisive “identity politics” connotation, as illustrated by the Chief Attorney’s declaration that non-white transgenders are more important than white gay males. Prioritizing potential clients based on race might be okay for a race-based advocacy group, but not for an outfit whose mission is to serve the poor of this City, regardless of “identity.”


  3. Jonathan McCoy says:

    This is a disgusting betrayal of our mission and you should be ashamed.


    • With all due respect. . . we think you’ve missed the point. Try reading it again less hastily.


      • Jonathan McCoy says:

        First, all lawyers know that the phrase “with all due respect” will be taken in the disingenuous manner with which it was likely said. I neither require nor desire it.

        That said, I’ve read this post thoroughly and it’s not any less shameful and reprehensible, especially *now*. We benefit when viewpoints such as these are treated precisely as deplorable as they are.


      • OK, kiddo. We hope you’re better at reading cases than reading satire. All the best – – Deplorable Squawk.

        Liked by 1 person

    • Anonymous says:

      I know Jonathan Swift. I’ve read Jonathan Swift. You, venerable sir and/or madame, are no Jonathan Swift.

      Satire works best when the premise advanced is so off-the-wall bonkers that the keener, more moral point is made clear.

      This just appears to be a rant about “social justice warriors” actually picking a fight and sticking with it.

      Youth before ignorance, you waning anachronism.


      • Careful, sonny, we waning anachronisms are firmly within the class of the vulnerable and marginalized. We don’t recall using the term social justice warrior, but lands sakes alive, you’re a mighty cranky bunch!


  4. Vunerable Too says:

    Boy does all of this sound too familiar. There is a major legal aid society in my state that is supposedly dedicated to the same thing. It turns out that by “vulnerable” what they mean is “women and children of color”. If you so happen to be an illegal immigrant mother they shit golden gavels. Yet if you are, say, a homeless white male please don’t go there as they are likely to yell at you if not shoot you on sight.

    And let me be frank (for jim or paul but not nancy) it is their time and their lives and so they can serve whoever they damn well please. But like you it is the goddam bullshit propaganda I can’t stand. The “vulnerable” my foot. The fact is they are serving the population they think the public finds most sympathetic and thereby puff up the size of their halos and at the same time, by no means coincidentally, increase charitable donations. PT Barnum would be proud.

    Liked by 2 people

  5. Windypundit says:

    It’s hard to imagine anyone in our society who is more vulnerable than someone accused — or worse, convicted — of a crime. You’ve been way ahead of them all along.

    Liked by 1 person

  6. First of all, we represent only poor people; and the defense of the rights of the poor by definition constitutes social justice work.

    More importan, the statement that we are a social justice organisation is an acknowledgement that this country is a failure; it admits that law enforcement and the entire “criminal justice” regime is the means by which oppression (largely racial) is carried out in our society.

    If we had a better country, then a defense organisation would not have to position itself as a fighter for social justice. That’s great for the hypothetical world. However, in the real world, in the world in which racist ideology forms the core of mainstream thought, the goals of social justice are entirely consistent with the mission of an indigent defender. This is true notwithstanding contrived fantasies of “white trash”, or the shameful denial of the fact that women and children of colour constitute the most vulnerable people of all. (Honestly, when we see that retrograde people in the defender community cannot grasp that privilege functions even at the bottom of the social ladder amongst accused and convicted persons, this further justifies the public posture of our organisation’s leadership on identifiying as an advocate for social justice.)

    Understand that the motivation of our best and most zealous people is the desire to fight institutional oppression; understand further that one of the best expressions of this motivation in a racist society is to represent poor people in a rigged court system whose impact is nothing short of genocidal. (And anyone who asserts that this equates to slacking off on advocacy of any individual is engaging in shameful dishonesty.)

    In sum: if you’re not comfortable embracing the sobriquet “SJW”, then you need to GTFO.


    • Scott Jacobs says:

      Understand that the motivation of our best and most zealous people is the desire to fight institutional oppression

      No, you chunderhead, the motivation is the defense of the client sitting beside you at the table – nothing else. If your zealous defense of your client adds to “social justice,” then so be it, but if not then you set social justice aside because you represent the client not “society”.


    • Brian Cowles says:

      I love this comment – it’s almost Beeblebroxian in its incomprehensibility. My favorite part has to be this logic train:
      1. “White trash” (a racial epithet for over a century) are a fantasy,
      2. Women and children of colour constitute the most vulnerable people of all, and
      3. Anyone who asserts that this equates to slacking off on advocacy of any individual is engaging in shameful dishonesty.
      There is only one logical conclusion possible: legal aid has unlimited funding, otherwise imaginary poor white people and other lower-priority clients would have to suffer during budget problems.


      • In the context of New York City, “white trash” is a complete straw man. “White trash” is a phenomenon of rural sectors, mainly Appalachia, and has no connection whatsoever with urban centres. In New York, as in every other American city, oppressed populations consist mainly of people of colour. (But you knew that.)

        Our organisation is the adversary of the district attorneys and of the police. When we label ourselves a social justice organisation, this is tantamount to saying that our adversaries are not neutral protectors of the general interest, as naive theorists (and intellectually dishonest ideologues) would posit, but, rather, that they are agents of oppression and state terror.

        Police culture all around the country is warmly welcoming to white supremacists and nazis, who consider police forces to be their natural home. In New York City, an absurdly over-staffed and dangerously militarised police department functions as an occupying army, terrorising residents in black and Latin neighbourhoods.

        In addition, New York’s police force has staged organised displays of intimidation against the elected mayor. What’s more, it has arrogated to itself the policy-making function, and categorically rejects the authority of the civilian government, which it considers to be entirely irrelevant. New York City’s police department thus behaves in a manner indistinguishable from a military junta.

        This is not how it’s supposed to be. But this is how it is. Our organisation’s act of embracing the goal of social justice shines a light on this ugly and degraded state of affairs. It is a policy that is long overdue.


  7. Arm Chair Army says:

    …the shameful denial of the fact that women and children of colour constitute the most vulnerable people of all.”

    Odd. Your profile says that your favorite quote is “workers of the world, unite” but I guess that just means “workers of the world, unite, on behalf of the people who I happen to think are more deserving.” Or to paraphrase Aerosmith, “come together, right now, under me.”

    That’s a nice bit of cognitive dissonance you have going on there.


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