Many lawyers avoid handling criminal matters, looking down upon those lawyers who do, and saying they can’t represent someone who is guilty or that they couldn’t deal with the responsibility of representing a client who might go to jail. But, of course, every person charged with a criminal offense should have adequate legal counsel and whether the client is guilty or not, there are usually redeeming factors. Rarely does a lawyer face a situation where the client is guilty and not worthy of any help. And most cases are plea bargained so that if a client faces years in jail, you’ll have done your job by getting the client reduced time or, possibly, alternate treatment such as drug rehabilitation.
I recall the first criminal case I handled. The Freeport Village Court assigned me to represent an indigent African-American man charged with violating a Village ordinance dealing with “disorderly conduct,” though he was essentially being tried for prostitution. He was very handsome and, impersonating a woman, he would allegedly pick up men (who thought they were picking up a woman). But while the New York State Penal Law includes disorderly conduct, there was a substantial question as to whether the Village had jurisdiction. I made a motion to dismiss and though I was faced with very feeble opposition, the Judge turned down my motion.
The Judge conducted his court as if he were presiding over the United States Supreme Court. In effect, he told me that he would never declare a local Village ordinance unconstitutional or otherwise illegal and that if I was serious I should go before the Appellate Courts. His claimed seriousness and independence was really spinelessness; he just didn’t want to take the responsibility. I put a lot of time into this case, making a detailed motion. However, the Judge refused to approve it because he didn’t think that the case was worth all that time. He told me only perfunctory representation was expected and not the wholehearted defense I offered. In fact, he said nobody had made a motion like this in such a case before.
I was new at the game and it really infuriated me. There were obviously two different applications of the law expected—one for the rich and another for the poor (particularly those with assigned counsel). The Judge looked straight at me and said he didn’t understand why I gave the case all this time; essentially he was saying that the defendant was just a poor black queer. I can’t even remember the result of the case. I am sure the defendant must have “pled out” and was not given any time. I’m not sure he was even fined. What I do remember vividly was the Court’s attitude in this case. That’s what made a big impression on me.