Remarks by Hon. Michael J. Ponsor
I have three sets of thanks to express tonight.
First, thanks to noted photographer and occasional attorney Max Stern. Thanks also to Linda Thompson, especially given current case she has with me. Next, I want to thank MACDL for this honor. It means a great deal to me. E. M. Forster said that he wrote novels to gain the respect of the people he respected. It could be said that we all work hoping for the approval of the people we respect; certainly judges do. I respect this group, very, very much. I don't deserve tonight's recognition, but I love getting it anyway. Jack Benny once received an award and noted that he didn't deserve it. He then added, "But I also have a terrible cold, and I don't deserve that either."
Third, and most importantly, I want to take this occasion to thank all the defense attorneys in this room for the work that they do. I'm proud to be a judge; I believe that the existence of a vigorous, independent judiciary distinguishes a free nation from a tyranny. But an independent judiciary is worthless without attorneys courageous enough to energetically represent persons charged with crimes. Only a tiny percentage of attorneys choose to do this work, the work that you do. My little world in the four counties of Western Massachusetts, for example, has about 800,000 people and 100 cities and towns. In my federal court, we have twenty defense counsel on our Criminal Justice Act list, ready to take criminal cases. There are probably ten or twelve additional lawyers who appear regularly before me who are not on the list. In other words, remove thirty lawyers from our 800,000 and you've basically gutted the criminal bar out where I live. I suspect the proportions are about the same here in the east.
Can anyone doubt that, without this small, vigilant group, the rights so eloquently described in our Constitution would in a very short time be, as a practical matter, meaningless? I don't doubt it at all.
As I think of the criminal bar, I'm reminded of Winston Churchill's comment about the RAF during the Battle of Britain: "Never in the field of human conflict was so much owed by so many to so few."
There is one major difference between you and the RAF of WWII worth noting. At least when the Spitfire pilot landed his plane and crawled out of the cockpit, there was someone there to hand him a brandy and soda, give him a jolly pat on the back, and send his white silk scarf out to be cleaned. When you have a victory, many of our citizens wonder out loud how you could bring yourself to represent such a scoundrel. You have to deal with moronic questions, such as: "How could you bring yourself to represent someone you thought was guilty?"
This ridiculous inquiry not only ignores the essential work criminal defense attorneys do to keep the system honestfor everyone's sake, it overlooks that simple fact that, to some extent, we are all criminals. Criminal defendants should be the biggest lobbying group in the country, because they include everyone. Mother Theresa was a felon, so is the Dalai Lama. I don't know exactly what crimes they've committed, but with an hour's research I bet I could come up with several. Part of the work criminal defense lawyers do is to remind everyone that persons who commit crimes are not "them"- they are us, our friends, our family, our loved ones, our selves. And if the principles our republic is founded on really mean anything, everyone deserves vigorous representation by people like you when he or she is charged with a crime.
Beyond the sneering and the dumb questions, your work is hard in other ways. Your clients have, in fact, very often committed the offenses they are charged with. Yet, they are, too frequently, facing penalties, doled out by judges like me, whose severity is grossly out of proportion to the crimes they've committed. You inevitably become close to many of the people you represent. Yet, a lot of the time you must endure watching them taken off to prison, their lives in tatters. And you lie awake wondering whether an overlooked pretrial motion, a different theory of defense, or an alternate approach to cross examination might have convinced at least one juror to have a reasonable doubt. Then, years after the case is over someone kindly informs you that your former client has filed a petition for writ of habeas corpus contending that you provided ineffective assistance of counsel. Sometimes you don't get paid; sometimes you get sued. Sometimes you are no so subtly threatened with prosecution yourself. Sometimes, not often in this country so far, thank heaven, but fairly regularly in some other countries, defense counsel are attacked, driven into exile, killed, or simply disappear.
It is such hard, often thankless work, crucial to our system of liberty. So much depends on your courage, resourcefulness, and tenacity. So much depends on your willingness to keep taking up this task, despite the odds.
My message is, my plea is: Don't give up. Don't lose heart. We need you.
Thanks, then, to Linda and Max for arranging to get me here. Thanks to MACDL for this cherished recognition. But most of all, thanks, deep thanks, to all of you for the terribly important work you do.