Anyone who finds themselves before a judge in Edgartown District Court on a criminal matter and doesn’t have enough money to hire an attorney won’t be out of luck.
A pool of public defenders who work under the auspices of the Committee for Public Counsel Services (CPCS) are available to help. The attorneys who provide this bar advocacy work do so at a diminished rate — $60 per hour — which is ultimately paid by the commonwealth. The rate is higher in superior court, especially for murder cases. When hired privately, area criminal defense attorneys commonly charge rates over $200 per hour.
Edgartown attorney Robb Moriarty, Suffolk University Law School 2004, both oversees the advocates on the Vineyard and serves as one.
“The bar advocates are essential to the functioning of every court,” Moriarty wrote. “The U.S. Supreme Court recognized as much in Gideon v. Wainwright in 1963 when it said that the right to counsel was ‘fundamental and essential to the right of a fair trial.’ Without bar advocates, criminal defendants would be unrepresented at arraignment, bail hearings, and dangerousness hearings. These hearings can result in people losing their liberty prior to trial when they are only accused of a crime. Without bar advocates, those who cannot afford counsel would proceed to trial without representation, where they could go to jail. In protecting the rights of people who cannot afford private counsel, they make manifest the constitutional ideal that we all stand equal before the law.”
Bar advocate Matt Jackson told The Times that he and the attorneys he serves with should never be thought of as subpar on account of the diminished compensation they get for services they provide. “People sometimes believe, in error, that because they have a so-called ‘public defender,’ they are getting a second-rate defense,” Jackson wrote. “That could not be farther from the truth.”
“They do a great job,” Moriarty wrote, “and I do not know what I would do without them. They are always on time, and have great attention to detail. They truly are zealous advocates, and play a fundamental role in our adversarial system.”
Defendants who qualify for a bar advocate on the Vineyard typically pay a flat fee of either $150 or $500, most often $150, Jackson noted. Jackson, who graduated from Northern Illinois University College of Law 2009, described bar counsel work as “an honor” grounded in “defending human rights.”
He isn’t alone in his thinking. Questions posed to two of Jackson’s colleagues, Casey Dobel and Ryan Searle, reveal some of the motives behind what they do.
Searle graduated from Vermont Law School in South Royalton, Vt., in 2009. Dobel graduated from American University Washington College of Law in Washington, D.C., in 2014.
What’s rewarding about being a court-appointed attorney?
Searle: The support from the other court-appointed attorneys statewide, and being able to help people navigate a complicated system. We see people on their worst days. They’re scared and stressed out, and frequently at risk of losing housing, their children, and/or their jobs because of whatever landed them in court. It’s nice to be able to listen without judgment, help them through a terrifying process, and ease a little bit of that burden for them.
Dobel: I get to help people at some of the scariest times in their lives. I get to hold their hand and say, “I’ve got you.” There are clients I no longer represent but still stay in contact with me because we form a friendship, and they will still turn to me if they need some moral support. People face such judgment and scrutiny in a small community when they make a mistake, and I appreciate being a person they can turn to when they need to talk. We are all more than the worst thing we have ever done. I also greatly appreciate the support of my fellow court-appointed attorneys. I have formed some wonderful friendships, because I think people in our line of work have to see the world a little differently. We don’t see “good people” and “bad people.”
What’s challenging about being a court-appointed attorney?
Searle: The pay is peanuts, while the cost of living here continues to rise; there is no vacation or sick time, there is no health insurance, we don’t have support staff like the ADAs and CPCS staff attorneys, and all overhead is out of pocket. We are independent contractors, and it adds a tremendous amount of stress to an already mentally taxing career.
Dobel: Seeing people lose their housing because of a court case, or seeing people have to fight to spend time with their children again because of the collateral consequences of a criminal case. A court case can turn someone’s life upside down in unexpected ways, and there are certain things that we just cannot help with, as much as we may want to.
On a professional level, we simply do not get paid enough to survive on Martha’s Vineyard. The majority of my work is court-appointed, and I love doing the work, but this Island is expensive. There is no health insurance tied to this work; we have no support staff. I had a medical emergency last year, and was out of work for two weeks, and that was two weeks without pay. I was answering emails from a hospital bed because I had a lot of scared clients who had their court dates rescheduled, and wanted to know what was happening next.
Do you think being a court-appointed lawyer should count as public service in the eyes of the federal government?
Searle: Yes. I think there should be something to permit the review of rural indigent defense attorneys for their actual income, rather than their potential income due to the ability to take private cases. Because we are independent contractors, not CPCS staff attorneys, we aren’t considered public servants. It is insulting, and I try not to think about it too much. I feel like our self-advocacy falls on deaf ears, and nobody with any power in D.C. wants to tackle this issue head-on.
Dobel: Absolutely. What we do is public service, it just is not recognized as such. It’s hard not to get angry when thinking about how much unpaid work we do (our daily billable hours are capped, but we often work beyond that cap), how little we are paid for the work that we are paid for, and how it makes absolutely no difference when it comes to paying back our massive student loan debt.
What attracted you to law?
Searle: Injustice and abuse of power, and my limited ability to help others without the law degree. I used to be a court advocate for Women’s Support Services (now Connect) and realized even with my master’s degree, there was only so much I could do to help. I wanted to be able to speak on behalf of clients, but my position as an advocate involved moral support, not legal advice and advocacy.
Dobel: I have never been able to be silent in the face of injustice. I still see plenty of it, but I am also able to fight it.
How do you think a lack of court-appointed attorneys would affect Edgartown District Court?
Searle: It would leave a lot of people unrepresented. Most of the new criminal cases that come through Edgartown District Court, especially since the pandemic started, are court-appointed cases. It would be a tremendous injustice.
Dobel: It would create a constitutional crisis unless we were replaced with a full-time public defender’s office. Most defendants who go through Edgartown District Court qualify for court-appointed counsel, and are entitled to representation.