Maren Chaloupka (TLC ’99), Scottsbluff, Nebraska
In 2016, in response to the worsening Louisiana indigent defense crisis, Trial Lawyer's College alum Tommy Davenport invited his local public defender’s office to give him ten cases, which Tommy would defend for free. Tommy felt that he was no better of a lawyer than a public defender, but that he had something that his local public defenders lacked: time. He also had TLC training, and by combining those assets, Tommy was able to provide great service to clients who had languished for months in the parish jail, securing their release when they otherwise might have waited for a year for an overworked public defender to be assigned to them.
Tommy gave a great gift to his community, to his stressed public defenders, and to his clients. Tommy’s fine example inspires this question: what if more of our alums followed Tommy’s lead, and also volunteered to relieve their local public defenders of cases?
Trial Lawyer's College as an organization is deeply concerned about the nationwide indigent defense crisis, and about what we as an organization of skilled, committed, creative Warriors can do to fight back. The Board of Directors has authorized a new initiative for TLC, in aspiration to engage our alums nationwide: the TLC Indigent Defense Challenge. This Challenge grows from Tommy’s example, but also includes other ways for TLC as an organization to fight the indigent defense crisis – and invites the creativity of the Tribe in building relationships with local public defenders’ offices and like-minded organizations to protect the rights of indigent defendants.
In structuring this Challenge, we are aware that what helps the most will vary from one local public defender’s office to the next – urban or rural, large offices or one-lawyer shops. Some public defenders (such as the public defender in Tommy Davenport’s district) may say “here’s some cases, go get ‘em”; others may say “no, because if you’re taking cases, then there’s less incentive to increase our budget – so help us advocate for a more realistic budget.” Others may say “help us with brief-writing” or “can you interview witnesses” or “help us organize trial notebooks and presentations.” Thus the Challenge is flexible. It begins with participating alums approaching their local public defenders to ask, “how can I help?”
Among the ways alums can help include:
A. Direct support to local public defenders
In 2018, TLC alums can give of their time, skill and creativity to support their local public defenders and the public defenders’ indigent clients.
Please note that this Challenge does not include offering to teach TLC methods to public defenders, for a very specific reason: the Challenge focuses on actually alleviating the public defender’s caseload burdens. In other words, taking cases off their dockets, taking responsibility for witnesses or motion work within a case, or taking up the work needed to push for more resources. Absolutely, public defenders should be invited and encouraged to attend Local Working Groups in their area as their time permits (not to mention official TLC events!). But this Challenge focuses on the very basic stressors of too many cases and too little time, and what contributions TLC alums can make to help with those stressors.
B. Screening Post-Conviction/Habeas Corpus requests sent to TLC
The Trial Lawyer's College administrative office periodically receives requests from incarcerated persons for pro bono representation on post-conviction/habeas corpus matters. Presently, our Executive Director can post these requests on the alumni listserve, welcoming any interested alum to make direct contact with the requesting individual. But there is no screening procedure because our Executive Director is not an attorney. She does not have the training to spot potential grounds for a new trial – the procedural missteps, constitutional violations by law enforcement and prosecutors, and nuances of forensic evidence, etcetera that comprise ineffective assistance of counsel.
As part of the Indigent Defense Challenge, TLC would like to create a committee of alums who could take over the screening of these requests. If a request appears to be meritorious, the committee could seek a cooperating TLC alum to put in touch with the individual requesting representation. It would then be up to that alum to determine whether he or she is willing to accept the request for representation and, if so, on what terms.
This committee should consist of alums who are public defenders (as joined by a Board member for oversight and guidance). Our public defender and criminal defense alums are uniquely qualified to issue-spot in this type of review. Screening requests for PC/HC relief that come to the College, and identifying potential cooperating alums (or teams of alums) to assist, would be well within the public defender/criminal defense attorney’s wheelhouse and would provide an important service to the individuals requesting representation. And, it would provide our Executive Director a more uniform process for responding to requesting individuals.
C. Outreach to like-minded partners in the justice community
The following on-partisan efforts throughout the United States are working to address the funding deficiencies of the indigent defense system. As part oFf the TLC Indigent Defense Challenge, Warriors can contribute their time and energy to projects such as:
The fight for indigent defense funding can only be helped when like-minded organizations share their resources, energy, and creativity. Trial Lawyer's College alums can show that TLC cares and is engaged in this battle as an organization, by volunteering for and building relationships with, these projects.
You can contact your local public defender and ask “how can I help?”
You can gather a team of yourself and fellow Warriors from your class or other TLC programs, make a decision about what you each can give, and offer your collective time and effort to your local public defender.
You can reach out to SPLC, 6AC or another partner in the justice community that is sponsoring indigent defense funding projects and tell them you’re a Trial Lawyers College alum who stands ready to help.
You can email Laurie, John Sloan, Maren Chaloupka or Patrick McLain about screening requests for post-conviction/habeas corpus representation, or about your willingness to accept referrals for post-conviction/habeas corpus representation.
And then, once you’ve gotten involved, we want you to share your stories with the Tribe. This could include:
The College is reviewing other incentives to alums to participate in the Challenge, such as scholarship rewards for outstanding participation in the Challenge – i.e., taking an unusual number of cases, or an especially outstanding result in one case, or successful lobbying for a budget/staffing increase. We would also seek recognition and participation incentives for members of a Post-Conviction/Habeas Corpus Screening Committee. If an alum takes a case referred by the PC/HC Screening Committee, that person will be recognized and honored as well.
Sisters and brothers, let’s see what TLC as an organization can do to serve public defenders in our communities. Whether you are a civil practitioner or a criminal defense lawyer, you can help. Think of your fellow alums who are brave public defenders, and step up to help your local public defender in honor of those fellow alums. You can give an hour, a week, a case, a trial, or something more sustaining as you build that relationship. Show your community that Trial Lawyers College cares about strengthening our justice system and that you are a proud representative of TLC with the skills, confidence, and generosity of spirit to be of service.
And then, share the stories of your service with the Tribe. Encourage your brother across town or your sister in the next state to accept the Challenge as you have done. Let the College thank you, honor you and commend you for your generosity of time and spirit.
As a Tribe, we can help … and as the wise man reminds us: “it all begins with you.”
If you have any comments about this Initiative or
other suggestions for ways that the Trial Lawyer's College might be able to assist with Indigent Defense,
please send an email to our Executive Director: Laurieg@triallawyerscollege.org