Ordinary Injustice: How America Holds Court

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9780805092271: Ordinary Injustice: How America Holds Court
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"A groundbreaking book . . . revealing the systemic, everyday problems in our courts that must be addressed if justice is truly to be served."―Doris Kearns Goodwin

Attorney and journalist Amy Bach spent eight years investigating the widespread courtroom failures that each day upend lives across America. What she found was an assembly-line approach to justice: a system that rewards mediocre advocacy, bypasses due process, and shortchanges both defendants and victims to keep the court calendar moving.

Here is the public defender who pleads most of his clients guilty with scant knowledge about their circumstances; the judge who sets outrageous bail for negligible crimes; the prosecutor who habitually declines to pursue significant cases; the court that works together to achieve a wrongful conviction. Going beyond the usual explanations of bad apples and meager funding, Ordinary Injustice reveals a clubby legal culture of compromise, and shows the tragic consequences that result when communities mistake the rules that lawyers play by for the rule of law. It is time, Bach argues, to institute a new method of checks and balances that will make injustice visible―the first and necessary step to reform.

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About the Author:

Amy Bach, a member of the New York bar, has written on law for The Nation, The American Lawyer, and New York magazine, among other publications. For her work in progress on Ordinary Injustice, Bach received a Soros Media Fellowship, a special J. Anthony Lukas citation, and a Radcliffe Fellowship. She lives in Rochester, New York, where she taught legal studies at the University of Rochester.

Excerpt. Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:

CHAPTER ONE

“WHAT’S A DEFENSE?”

I didn’t know I was going to jail,“ I heard a defendant say as she stood before the judge in Greene County, Georgia. Of course she didn’t. No one had told her the consequences of pleading guilty. Most people, educated or not, often have no idea what a guilty plea actually means: the conviction of a crime that subjects them to incarceration, fines, probation, a criminal record with unforeseen future consequences. Many do not even know that a guilty plea is not mandatory or that an appeal after conviction at trial is possible, even though a judge is required to correctly advise defendants before any plea.

I had first come to Greene County in 2001 after hearing about the chaos in its court system which seemed representative of a statewide problem; and I continued to visit for weeks at a time over the next five years. As required by the U.S. Supreme Court precedent, the county was fulfilling the obligation to provide attorneys to those who couldn’t afford them. With little state oversight, court-appointed lawyers, for a variety of reasons, were sacrificing the interests of their most vulnerable and malleable constituency—the defendants they were supposed to be protecting. In this process, the defense lawyer, the judge, and prosecutor formed a kind of a tag team—charge the accused, assign a lawyer, prosecute, plead, sentence—with slight regard for the distinctions and complexities of each case.

Robert E. Surrency was under contract with Greene County to represent poor people accused of crime. He was not employed by the county full-time; he continued to represent a number of paying clients as well. Even so, his private work was not lucrative enough, so he needed the indigent defense contract to support himself. On an annual basis, his caseload was double the national recommendation for a full-time attorney.

Surrency was raised in Media, Pennsylvania, where his father, Erwin C. Surrency, had worked as the law librarian and assistant dean for Temple Law School. “I grew up in the stacks,“ he said of his upbringing. Surrency’s father, whom he admired greatly, had been born and married in Georgia. In turn, Surrency attended Mercer University in Macon, where he had kin. Afterward, he headed back to Temple for law, passed the Pennsylvania Bar, and landed a clerkship with a state court judge for whom he helped write opinions. He then hung out a shingle as a solo practitioner and established a civil-law practice. In the mid-1980s his father decided to return to Georgia to become the director of the library at the University of Georgia Law School. Surrency, in his thirties, chose to move as well. He opened a law practice on Main Street in Watkinsville, Georgia, conveniently located near several other towns, Madison and Greensboro, and near his father in Athens. But he found it hard to make a living. Surrency seemed to lack the relationships those who had grown up there enjoyed. An old-time attorney explained that Georgians born and bred “kind of rule around here” and that Surrency constantly had to prove himself. “He was a stranger,“ the attorney said. Surrency’s practice foundered.

One afternoon in 1987, he drove the thirty-five-minute trip to Greene County’s courthouse and ran into Chip Atkins, a longtime local lawyer. Atkins had been the public defender but no longer wanted the job. He said that the contract to represent poor people was up for “bid,“ and urged him to apply. Surrency won the contract by offering to handle all the routine cases for fifteen thousand dollars, plus seventy-five dollars an hour for serious cases like murder; his bid, which came in at about twenty thousand dollars total, was slightly lower than anyone else’s, he explained. In his first year, he represented forty defendants while maintaining a private practice. “It was a good side job,“ Surrency said.

In the fourteen years that followed, his public caseload multiplied tenfold, while the amount of time he devoted to each case inevitably shrank. In 2001, the year I first met him, 1,359 people were arrested and held in the Greene County jail. Because the vast majority of criminal defendants nationwide are too poor to afford a lawyer, many of those arrested in Greene County would become his clients. During the same fourteen years, Surrency’s pay rose only to $42,150.

Nonetheless, Surrency claimed to have achieved good results. He settled a large number of cases through plea-bargaining, which he called “a uniquely productive way to do business.” It got his clients in and out of the system quickly, which, he maintained, was what they wanted; and it saved him from having to defend clients whose cases he did not have time to try. Holding onto his contract depended on, among other things, expediting the process. If he got stuck on one client, he couldn’t push the rest through. The judges expected him to perform—one had a motto, “Slow justice is no justice”—and could complain to the county commissioners, who had a lot of influence with the committee that awarded Surrency’s contract.

Outsiders and a few insiders, such as the head clerk and Surrency’s former paralegal, saw him as the quintessential “meet ‘em, greet ‘em, and plead ‘em lawyer” who met his defendants minutes before they would face the judge and who, by then, had few options but to plead guilty. Even so, Surrency insisted he was helping people. He saw himself as a man of experience who was defending the poor. He helped extract the innocent from the system and shepherd the guilty through an imperfect and unjust world.

When I arrived at the Greene County courthouse just before nine in the morning to watch Surrency in action, he was trudging up the stairs to the courtroom. He had red tousled hair and wore a loose grey suit. The old courtroom, with its ceiling fans and creaky floors, was packed. Those who didn’t have a seat overflowed into the hallways outside. Surrency looked distracted and then defeated as he saw the crowd that awaited him. Some, waving papers, laid into him with frustrated questions. Many had phoned him about their cases but had not heard back, or had spoken with him briefly and been told to meet with him before court. They were swarming around him like gnats. “Everybody back up. Back up,“ he said. “I’ll try to get to talk to all of you before you go to the judge.”

I had come on the first day of “trial week,“ the term of court when this rural court attempts to resolve cases that have built up over the previous quarter with jury trials. The label is a misnomer. In four years, Surrency had taken only fourteen cases to trial out of 1,493; he won five. The rest of the cases he managed during that period—more than 99 percent—he plea-bargained. In this particular session no cases went to trial. People either pleaded guilty or had their cases rescheduled, a drill that took only two days. There were 142 defendants on the court calendar and 89 were Surrency’s. In a flash, it seemed, forty-eight of his clients rose from the rickety dark wooden benches, one after the other, to plead guilty. After the first day I spent in court observing him, he announced, “We have successfully done a ten-page calendar in one day!” For Surrency, speed meant success.

In court, he would yell out a client’s name, like the hostess at a restaurant clearing the wait list. “Mr. Jones, are you here?” Then he would peruse the list of plea offers the prosecutor had given him and tell his defendant how much he or she would have to pay in fines or serve in jail time. If the defendant didn’t want to plead, the matter was held over until the next trial week. Surrency theorized that the longer a case dragged on, the more likely it was that incriminating witnesses might forget what had happened. His job had devolved into this: Plead guilty or come back another day.

Can a defense lawyer plead virtually all his cases and still be doing a decent job? In assessing the quality of a lawyer’s work, the number of cases he pleads out is less significant than the amount of attention he gives to each one. What is required of him is not necessarily research in law books, but investigation and client contact: initial interviews about what led to the arrest or the charge; discussions, for example, with the prosecutor’s witnesses to assess their strength, or with the arresting police officer; perhaps a review of any forensic reports or psychiatric evaluations. What’s needed is a range of basic inquiries involving phone calls or brief meetings that go toward deciding strategy for everything from bail setting to finding evidence.

Surrency had little time to talk in detail to his clients, and so he often had limited information to use in their favor. It was thus difficult for him to bargain with prosecutors to secure a more lenient sentence, nor could he produce the ultimate trump card: a willingness to go to trial when his clients claimed innocence. Many of them risked losing their homes, children, and livelihoods if they pleaded guilty, and yet his actions remained the same: His caseload often made it hard for him to clarify the facts—for example, whether his client had been the ringleader or had acted without intent or was guilty of a lesser crime—which is the kind of information that can mitigate the severity of a sentence or get charges dropped in negotiation.

Part of Surrency’s problem was that his contract did not fund investigations or expert witnesses. For these, Surrency would have to ask the judge to provide funds or just lay out the money and then ask for reimbursement, which he didn’t like to do. He didn’t want to get people riled up about spending the county’s money. Moreover, he claimed not to need these resources, anyway, because most of his cases were “pretty open and shut.” Und...

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Book Description Picador USA, United States, 2010. Paperback. Condition: New. Language: English. Brand new Book. A groundbreaking book . . . revealing the systemic, everyday problems in our courts that must be addressed if justice is truly to be served.--Doris Kearns Goodwin Attorney and journalist Amy Bach spent eight years investigating the widespread courtroom failures that each day upend lives across America. What she found was an assembly-line approach to justice: a system that rewards mediocre advocacy, bypasses due process, and shortchanges both defendants and victims to keep the court calendar moving. Here is the public defender who pleads most of his clients guilty with scant knowledge about their circumstances; the judge who sets outrageous bail for negligible crimes; the prosecutor who habitually declines to pursue significant cases; the court that works together to achieve a wrongful conviction. Going beyond the usual explanations of bad apples and meager funding, Ordinary Injustice reveals a clubby legal culture of compromise, and shows the tragic consequences that result when communities mistake the rules that lawyers play by for the rule of law. It is time, Bach argues, to institute a new method of checks and balances that will make injustice visible--the first and necessary step to reform. Seller Inventory # BTE9780805092271

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