A recurring feature on the blog will be “Five Questions for a Public Interest Leader” – a short interview with a variety of public interest legal leaders including non-profit directors, public defenders, law school administrators, and more. For our fourth “Five Questions” we spoke with Derwyn Bunton, the Chief Public Defender for Orleans Parish (serving the city of New Orleans, Louisiana). Mr. Bunton is 1998 graduate of New York University School of Law and has been Chief Public Defender since the fall of 2008. Before that he worked for the Juvenile Justice Project of Louisiana and Juvenile Regional Services, serving youth involved in the criminal justice system. Mr. Bunton was incredibly generous with his time, and as a result this is a special 7-question edition of Five Questions for a Public Interest Leader.
1. You’ve been in New Orleans for most of your career. What attracted you to the city out of law school, and what drew you to the opportunity at the Public Defenders Office?
The tremendous need and the opportunity for a young lawyer to make a lot of difference very fast. When I came down to work with the Juvenile Justice Project they were a start-up nonprofit addressing systemic needs to the juvenile justice project and criminal justice system. Through juvenile justice work it allowed me to have broad experience, systemic litigation, legislative advocacy, front-line litigation.
Post-Katrina, after the collapse of our criminal justice system I got more involved in the criminal justice system by being involved on the local Public Defender board. From there I got the Public Defense bug and began working for juvenile regional services (another non-profit that did juvenile representation and other advocacy). I also helped with the passage of the public defender act allowing for more structure for the PD system. When the opening came up for chief Public Defender, I applied and the state board believed enough in me to give me a shot at it.
2. States all across the country are facing funding struggles for indigent defense, including Louisiana. Can you tell us a bit about what the situation looks like down there now, whether that’s better or worse than when you started, and where you see it going?
I’m optimistic. I came in here with an idea of change that had a timeline of about 3 to 5 years. In the first year I just wanted to take a look at the organization, look at ourselves from the inside out making sure we have the structures we need to deliver good services to the people of New Orleans. We’ve made a few changes, and for the most part I feel we’ve done that well. The stuff that’s really sort of cool is the insertion of the office as a member of the criminal justice community. Nobody cared about PDs, nobody talked about that, and that neglect was really apparent. In the last year we’ve been able to get a new dedicated revenue source. For the first time ever in 2009 we received a line-item appropriation something that had never been done. They promptly took that away for 2010 due to budget issues. But the new revenue source is still quite exciting. I didn’t think I could convince people in a year to do something like that. We’ve been able to grow the office, we’re more than 50 lawyers strong, we recruit nationally at top schools in addition to all the local schools. I’m excited, those are really good changes and I see us moving up. We’re always going to have budget problems but I think the future of how big they are will be an improvement.
3. Now that you are responsible for hiring, training, and cultivating a new generation of public defender advocates, can you tell us what are three things you look for in new applicants?
1. Did they go to NYU? [laughs] Seriously though, we look at what sort of culture was at their law school? Was there a commitment at their law school to public interest? That’s a big indicator of their commitment.
2. Look at their resume – is there a personal history of commitment to public interest and public defense?
3. What did they do in law school to ready themselves to really fight on behalf of poor folks in the law. Did they have a clinic? Did they do things like trial advocacy? Did they take evidence? Did they take criminal procedure? Things that would let us believe that they love this area of the law. None of these things are dispositive but they help us evaluate candidates.
4. Some have said that there are two primary schools of thought on what it takes to be a good public defender or prosecutor: one argues that it takes a deep commitment to the criminal justice system and its ability to work, and thus a talented person could be an equally effective defender or prosecutor, while another argues that there must be a fundamental ideological commitment to one side or the other. What do you think of these arguments, and would you consider working as a prosecutor?
This is a debate in the community. No, I would not consider working in a prosecutor’s office. My experience tells me that the best defenders would give you that answer. In my experience you cannot be ambivalent about helping folks charged with crimes; you can’t be ambivalent about helping the poor. Poverty produces some strange behaviors, and if you’re passing judgment on that, you probably shouldn’t be a defender. I’m certainly in the school of thought that the people who work the hardest and are the most committed are those who believe this is a life’s work as a defender and it would be impossible to be a prosecutor.
4. a. Would you consider being a judge?
That forces you to be objective. And you have to be comfortable with effectively watching folks go away. I think I could consider it, but I’m not sure – there’s also a train of thought among hard-core defenders that goes something like ‘the bench is where lawyers go to die.’ When you’re done, when you’re over, you sit on the bench. I find a lot of that hard to shake, personally. When you’re out helping with an investigation, getting ready for a trial, prepping your crosses, doing a negotiation, that’s when I feel my best – when I feel like I’m doing the best work for people in need. I’d have to get over my feelings that the bench is where you go to stop fighting.
5. Where do you envision the rest of your legal career going? Any ideas on what you might like to do next?
I’m not quite sure. I’m really focused on doing this job and doing this job well. And then I don’t know, we’ll see where life takes me. I could definitely see myself in a law school setting trying to train folks and then sending them off to do good work for those who need it most. I can actually imagine that being fulfilling. Like I said, if I feel like I’m open, maybe I’ll become a judge. I guess all that is to say I don’t know, but in some way I’ll either be on the front line or training folks to be on the front line to help people in need. Somewhere positioning myself to do the most good as I see it.
6. Do you think the upcoming mayoral election will have an effect on your office? [ed. note - the New Orleans mayoral primary is Feb. 6, and there are currently 11 candidates in the race]
I think it absolutely will. A lot of the debate has been dominated by what’s going on in the criminal justice system, the crime rate, the murder rate, etc. Tooling the criminal justice system to handle the things that come at it. Equip the system to deal with the realities of the city. All the candidates have pledged to fully fund the system, which is generally good news for us. We’ve been neglected and ignored, and I don’t’ think any of the candidates left in the race will do that. We’re on the map, and in the consciousness now, and whoever is mayor is going to give us some serious time, and hopefully resources.
7. Anything our readers should know about New Orleans?
They should know that they all need to come to New Orleans and do good work – New Orleans is ground zero for criminal justice and social justice work in the country, not just in Louisiana. Smart, capable people in this town are in short supply and greatly appreciated.
We’d like to thank Mr. Bunton again for his time and thoughtful answers. If you have questions you’d like asked, or suggestions for leaders to interview, please leave a comment here!