The Role of a Defense Attorney

RECEIVED Fri., June 19, 2020

Dear Editor,
    I read with interest “A Question of Compassion for Travis County’s Family Violence Court,” [News, June 19] naively hoping that The Austin Chronicle was breaking from the habit amongst local media covering courts to trot out the same old, tired themes: Criminals are very bad, they should be punished harshly, and that attorneys that represent people charged are also bad people. My hope was misplaced, and I was disappointed again. Completely disregarding the categorical unfairness that is commonplace in Travis County’s family violence courts—including a lack of access to the right to a speedy trial and disproportionately higher rates of conviction and harsher sentences for Black and Latino men—Sarah Marloff disparaged the work of defense attorney Margaret Chen Kercher, and in doing so, undermined the critical, constitutionally mandated function of a legal defense in our system.
    The role of a defense attorney is to advocate zealously on behalf of each client. That role isn’t only mandated by the Constitution and legal ethical rules imposed on attorneys, it’s absolutely essential to our system. Why do we not question the function of prosecutors in convicting people and sending them to prison when a prosecutor runs for judge? Because we lazily assume—and shallow media coverage continues to tell us—that the purpose of the system is to punish people, harshly, no matter what. Chen Kercher is immensely qualified to be a judge, especially because she has done the work of defending people in court. This work is essential, because the function of a criminal legal system is ensuring fairness to those charged, not assembly-line conviction delivery. Asking whether someone who not only did her job, but did one of the most important jobs enshrined in our Constitution, is qualified to be a judge is asking the wrong question and dangerously misleads the public.
Rhiannon Hamam
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