Just days after sitting for the Florida Bar Exam, Jeff James, JD '09, hit the ground running as a new hire at the Law Offices of Carlos J. Martinez, Public Defender for the Eleventh Judicial Circuit of Florida (PD-11). His position as an assistant public defender has required him to spend almost every business day in court, making legal and factual arguments and perhaps most importantly, learning how to act quickly on his feet. The Public Defenders Office does not let its lawyers simply fend for themselves, however: James has the benefit of being able to draw upon the extensive formal training program and institutional knowledge among litigators, which is essentially the largest criminal defense law firm in the State of Florida.
Some people, because of their strong emotional reaction towards criminality, do not understand how it is that criminal defense attorneys, especially public defenders, do what they do. "How can you defend those criminals?" is a question that comes up at family gatherings or holiday functions. At its core, indigent criminal defense is based on the principle, as embodied in the Sixth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, that the government should not deprive any person of his or her liberty unless the government has proven that individual's guilt in accordance with the most stringent evidentiary standards recognized by law. Apart from wanting to fight for the constitutional right to counsel, the immediate responsibility and hands-on litigation experience offered through public service, specifically indigent criminal defense, attracts attorneys of all backgrounds and levels of experience.
Initially, James was based at the Juvenile Justice Center on Northwest 27th Avenue, where he litigated and tried numerous delinquency cases on behalf of indigent juvenile clients. After practicing in the Juvenile Division for eight months, he was transferred to the County Court Division, where he represented indigent adult clients who could not afford bond or otherwise secure release pending trial in their misdemeanor cases. James rose quickly through the ranks to the Felony Division; currently, he is assigned to Circuit Court, specifically the courtroom division of Judge Jose Fernandez. In this capacity, he is responsible for heavy caseload involving third degree felony charges and/or some second degree felony charges.
James, who grew up in Carol City, received his undergraduate degree from the University of Florida and then returned to South Florida for law school. While at Miami Law, he was unsure of the practice areas he intended to pursue until the summer after his second year of law school, during which time when he completed his certified legal internship at the Public Defenders Office. Through that experience, he learned firsthand that in almost every criminal case, there are two sides to every story.
"It's easy to label someone a thief and yet fail to realize that person is a mother who needed food for her newborn because she lost her job, apartment, and pride ... I can help that mother through the criminal justice system," said James.
Many assistant public defenders are known for pushing back against the "one size fits all" mindset to resolving criminal cases. With more than five years of service as an assistant public defender in Miami, Sara Yousuf, JD '05, believes strongly that a just punishment does not always equate to doing prison time. Yousuf, who left behind frigid winters in her hometown of Bloomfield Hills, Michigan, to earn both her undergraduate and law degrees at "the U," finds it personally satisfying to watch her clients walk out of the courthouse, knowing that she had a role in protecting their liberty. Although "the heavy workload as well as the emotional commitment are daily challenges, I couldn't see myself doing anything else," observed Yousuf.
She has learned to manage her work obligations and still explore her other professional and personal interests in order to maintain a healthy work-life balance. She is a vocal supporter of local artists and diversity of art in public places. Yousuf also helps to plan the monthly "Critical Mass Miami" bike ride and other projects of Emerge Miami, a local coalition of progressive individuals, organizations, and independent businesses.
For some, the quality of the work and job satisfaction associated with being an indigent defender far outweighs the perceived financial benefits of private practice. Gregg Toung, J.D. '90, is an assistant public defender in the Involuntary Civil Commitment Unit within the Felony Division. Previously, Toung worked for a federal judge, the U.S. Attorney's Office in both Miami and New York, and in private practice, all the while focusing on the area of criminal law. Notwithstanding the prestige generally accorded to such positions, ultimately Gregg found himself gravitating toward defending the constitutional rights of poor people. Since becoming an assistant public defender, Gregg has had the opportunity to practice every facet of criminal law. Like Jeff James and Sara Yousuf, Toung derives the most satisfaction from making a positive impact on the lives of those whom he has had the pleasure of representing.
His current role at the Public Defender has offered the most challenging work that he has experienced in his legal career. In the Involuntary Civil Commitment Unit, Toung represents individuals who have fully served their criminal sentences for sexually violent or sexually motivated offenses, but who are now the subject of petitions filed by the State of Florida in which they are alleged to qualify for indefinite civil confinement in a secure facility for long-term control and treatment.
"These persons, perhaps more so than any others, have truly been treated as societal outcasts, making my representation of them all that more crucial and important," said Toung. "Indeed, if we are to consider our society as one built on the concepts of freedom and the protection of human rights for all persons, we must be concerned with how we treat everyone, especially those we have decided to cast out of our society."