MINNEAPOLIS Last week former New Ulm resident Mary Moriarty was appointed Chief Public Defender in Hennepin County. This appointment places Moriarty in charge of 140 public defenders.
Moriarty is the daughter of Patrick Moriarty, who worked as a public defender in New Ulm. She remembers riding around in the car with her father with the cassette player on and listening to trial evidence tapes rather than music.
Moriarty did not decide to pursue a law career until after starting college. She graduated from Macalester College with a double major in political science and history, before heading to law school.
"I knew I wanted to be a public defender from the beginning," said Moriarty.
As a public defender Moriarty expected to work in a courtroom. However, the majority of her peers intended to work in a businesses legal department. "I was nave in that I thought everyone wanted to work in the courtroom," she said.
Moriarty said that one of the downsides of the Chief Public Defender position is her time spent in the courtroom is limited, but on positive side she is able to train new attorneys.
"I love training lawyers," said Moriarty.
In addition to her work in Hennepin County, she works closely with Gideon's Promise, a program that seeks to strengthen and train public defenders. More than 50 years ago a decision made by the U.S. Supreme Court in the Gideon vs. Wainwright case guaranteed defendants the right to an attorney. Gideon's Promise pushes to ensure that public defenders have the necessary training and support.
Often times public defender offices are not sufficiently funded and are understaffed. Moriarty explains that unlike other law firms public defenders cannot control their work flow. If a person is charged with a felony and they cannot afford a lawyer, they automatically go to the public defender no matter the case load. In areas with lower incomes this situation can be an even bigger problem.
"Even though resources are bad up here, they can be worse down South," Moriarty said. In addition to higher case loads, public defenders in southern states often face hostile courtrooms. Through Gideon's Promise communities are established to support public defenders and bring reform across the South.
Moriarty has also worked as faculty member in a forensic college for public defenders. She teaches a course on pattern evidence that instructs public defenders on finger print litigation. The program - which was founded by famed defense attorney Barry Scheck, who was on the defense team in the O.J. Simpson trial - offers assistance to attorneys who do not have the support of a major law firm.
Moriarty feels that in recent years the role of public defender has been looked down on by the media. Unlike the days of Perry Mason, modern courtroom dramas tend to focus on the prosecution. Moriarty said that the opening of every "Law & Order" episode states "the people are protected by police and district attorney," but it leaves out the hard work of public defenders.
Hennepin County public defenders are currently struggling to solve pay inequities due to funding issues. However, Moriarty is optimistic about the future. The current State Chief Public Defender, Bill Ward, was the previous Chief Public Defender in Hennepin County, and she hopes the State will realize the importance of providing equal representation for all Minnesotans.