Attorney Seema Ahmad is Interviewed by American in Justice

Posted by on March 25, 2019 in Press & Internal News

Our very own Seema Ahmad is interviewed about the life of a Public Defender, Not as Seen on TV. “The job is raw and real, unlike Hollywood depictions that show these people as either glamorous or bumbling.” The article published at American in Justice is also excerpted below.

When you are a federal public defender, sometimes the only things you can do for a client are to stand next to him, bear witness to his struggle and his life, and brace yourself as the criminal justice system devours him. Due to mandatory minimum sentences and the disproportionate power of prosecutors, you often have little power to change the outcome. A mandatory 10 years for selling drugs, or a binding multi-year sentence simply for returning to the U.S. illegally to reunite with family, is commonplace.

Still, the federal public defenders at my office in Los Angeles are a far cry from the bumbling, inept, and ineffective public defenders depicted on TV. We scrape and dig and push for anything that will help the client. We obsessively prepare for trial seeking that elusive “not guilty” verdict, and brainstorm novel, creative motions to challenge a case.

Ahmad speaking during Muslim Public Affairs Council’s Convention at Long Beach Convention Center on December 11th, 2016. Photo: Courtesy of MPAC

But there’s another component to the job. The unseen duties of a federal public defender may be searching for a hostel at 7:00 at night, and giving a client $40 so she doesn’t have to sleep on the street. The defender may have to comfort a teary wife as she comes to terms with being separated from her husband for years, or counsel a long-time client who has yet another probation violation because as much as she tries, she cannot kick her drug addiction.

Being a federal public defender is to be part lawyer, part social worker, and part punching bag. It isn’t the work of the glamorous, high-powered lawyer shows on TV. It is raw and real and overwhelming every single day. So why do we do it?

My colleagues and I have an unyielding belief that the Constitution protects our poor, black, and brown clients just as much as it does any other Americans. And if we did not enforce the rights of those accused of crimes, those rights would be meaningless for all of us. We believe that the essence of our clients is not defined by a single act they may have committed, and that their humanity and their struggle—growing up in gang neighborhoods, perhaps being abandoned by their parents, or simply taking a wrong turn in life—matter.

We believe that when our clients are at the lowest point in their lives and society is ready to condemn them, we should be there to advocate for them and to make sure they are seen. Perhaps we see a little of ourselves in our clients. And perhaps if Hollywood can refocus from the slick lawyer shows to the real stories of our clients, it can play a part in finally overhauling this broken system.