Public Pretender laments the oft-heard judicial refrain about how public defenders aren't "moving the docket."
Although the image of public defenders in the press is more often one of underpaid, overworked lawyers who just try to plead all their cases out without concern for the individual needs of their clients, my experience has been that public defenders must constantly fight against the not-so-subtle demands of judges to "move the docket." To be sure, not all judges are like that. When I was in family violence court, I probably set 50-75% of my cases for trial. My judge never complained once. And it wasn't uncommon for that court to have anywhere from 3-4 jury trials a week, along with 1-2 bench trials on Friday. This judge understood two things about family violence cases: 1) a conviction for a family violence assault was about the worse misdemeanor conviction you could have on your record; and 2) these cases were very often "he said-she said" cases that meant defendants had a good chance of an acquittal. In my year-and-a-half in that court, I'd guess that about half of the cases I set for trial were dismissed, about 25% of them pled on the day of trial, and the other 25% actually went to trial. Of the 25% that went to trial, about 75% resulted in "not guilty" verdicts. When you have statistics like that, it is hard to argue that you are setting too many cases for trial. On the other hand, one of my former colleagues had a judge that constantly complained to her superiors that she was setting too many cases for trial, despite the fact that she was winning 75% of them. My response to that judge would have been something along the lines of "Which clients who were found not guilty by a jury after exercising their constitutional right to a trial would you suggest that I should have simply pled out?" And, of course, none of that even touches on the issue of it being the defendant's decision whether to go to trial or accept a plea. Because, god knows, there has never been a case where the public defender advised her client that it would be prudent to accept the prosecutor's reasonable plea bargain, but the defendant insisted on going to trial, as is his right. Nope, it's always those damn public defenders not "moving the docket."