Point of View

Seeking reasonable treatment for protesters

August 31, 2013 

For attorneys, a case comes along once in a while to remind us of the best reasons to practice law. We are lucky when our local courts can reaffirm core principles of American democracy – free speech and free assembly, and the ability to speak our minds to elected officials.

The thousand or so Moral Monday cases proceeding through the Wake County system provide a welcome break from the usual criminal caseload of bad behavior driven by poverty, greed or vice. This opportunity arises only when idealistic people have the will to challenge injustice in our society, and they often do so at great personal risk.

I left the practice of law in 2008, handling only the occasional matter for family or friends, until the call came out for volunteers to represent the Moral Monday protesters. I have primary caregiver responsibility for a toddler and a new business to run, so it would have been easy to let other lawyers litigate these cases.

However, I was inspired by the protesters, so diverse in age and social status, all willing to stand toe-to-toe with the fearsome machinery of the criminal justice system to make a simple point: that our legislature – the People’s House if there ever were one – belongs to every one of us, not just to the billionaire funders of the right-wing extremists, not just to the army of paid lobbyists who enjoy access to the authors of our laws, certainly not to the political party operatives who move through the building at will.

All of us have the right to make our voices heard by those elected to represent us.

The protesters went into the Capitol knowing that they would leave handcuffed for daring to speak out with mere words instead of campaign donations. From every walk of life, brave men and women stepped forward to provide test cases, challenging the local bench and bar to give meaning to the words of our state and federal constitutions.

As an attorney, a father and a business owner, I could not risk going to jail and fighting a potential criminal conviction. What I can do is devote my time and ability to helping those who had that courage.

These cases deserve serious consideration, and the defendants and their lawyers deserve the basic respect and professionalism expected in any litigation. Sadly, the conduct that I, and many other members of the defense bar, have recently witnessed from the Wake County District Attorney’s Office has exemplified the bad behavior that we sometimes see in our legal system.

Several of my clients, who are elderly and poor, have been asked to drive four and five hours for routine scheduling hearings normally resolved by a simple form agreement between the prosecutor and defense lawyer. When I asked the assistant district attorney in charge of these cases to agree to reschedule a first appearance so that my client could attend her own wedding, my request was flatly refused.

Other consent orders were withheld unless my clients personally appeared for no other conceivable reason than to demonstrate the power of the district attorney’s office to compel people to drive to Raleigh.

Wisely, judges have routinely overruled the assistant district attorney’s objections to reasonable accommodations. But these routine matters should not be tying up the time of volunteer defense lawyers and busy judges – the district attorney’s office should recognize these cases for the solemn responsibility that they are and act accordingly.

No one is looking for special treatment, but the legal system works efficiently only when the participants exercise good judgment, seek resolution instead of retribution and act in good faith.

Why are these Moral Monday defendants being singled out for scorched-earth tactics? And why are their volunteer attorneys being refused basic professional courtesy?

I hope that as these cases work their way through the Wake County court system, we see more attention to professionalism from the district attorney’s office. I know we all look forward to getting the cases before North Carolina jurors quickly and efficiently so that everyday citizens can rule on the important issues involved.

Regardless of what one thinks of the politics of the Moral Monday protesters, if they are denied fair and professional treatment just so the state can win a case, we will all be the losing party.

Jonathan Blitz is a member of the N.C. State Bar and a business owner living in Orange County.

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