In the halls of justice in the Bronx, the poorest county in New York State, the Bronx Defenders take on more than 30,000 cases a year. The legal nonprofit is regarded as a national leader for its work both in and out of the courtroom, but it took a single camera allowed into its offices to endanger the group’s future.
A YouTube music video uploaded in early December shook up the Bronx Defenders and led to a city investigation that forced two of its staff attorneys to resign and its founder and executive director to be suspended for her staff's involvement in the anti-police video.
Now, critics of the organization, including Patrolmen’s Benevolent Association President Pat Lynch, have seized on the video and the investigation and called for the Defenders to lose their $20 million a year contract with the city.
"In our view they should have been fired immediately, disbarred from practicing law and the city's funding for the Bronx Defenders withdrawn," Lynch said after the two Defenders attorney involved in the video resigned.
The Bronx Defenders has more than 200 staff members, of whom more than 100 are attorneys.
Neither Bronx Defenders nor Mayor Bill de Blasio’s office responded to questions about whether funding for the group remains at risk, despite calls from Lynch to defund the group entirely.
Legal observers tell Metro they don’t expect the commotion over the video to have a significant impact on the Defenders’ budget or work.
“It’ll blow over,” former NAACP attorney Michael Sussman told Metro.
A spokeswoman for the Bronx District Attorney’s office told Metro that basic legal services like the ones offered by Bronx Defenders are a matter of law.
“We've got to have public defenders,” she said. “It’s an arrestee's right.”
The Bronx D.A.’s office declined to answer any further questions about the Defenders.
Sussman said innovative organizations like the Bronx Defenders are vital in a criminal justice system in which the quality of representation in court depends on the size of an defendant's pocketbooks.
"The only way to resolve that is to have these highly professional offices committed institutionally to the defense of people accused of crimes," he said, adding public defenders need more money — not less.
Steve Zeidman, the director of CUNY's Criminal Defense Clinic and a former supervisor at the Legal Aid Society, said there’s a growing need for public defenders as the poor and people of color continue to be arrested in increasing numbers.
“Vigorous public defenders are needed to raise and argue those very issues so they are not swept under the rug,” he said.
Politicization of public defenders is nothing new. In fact, the Bronx Defenders were born out of political struggle.
In 1997, former Mayor Rudy Giuliani cut city funding of the Legal Aid Society, which held a citywide contract to serve as public defenders for New Yorkers who could not afford legal representation.
Giuliani criticized Legal Aid, which still takes on more than 300,000 cases a year, as a monopoly, opening up contracts to smaller legal groups and law firms.
Like every other borough, the Bronx is home to both high-income earners and a struggling working class. Even so, it remains the state's poorest county and is home to one of the country's poorest Congressional districts, with an almost 30 percent poverty rate.
Bronx Defenders is a model organization around the country due to its approach to criminal justice, explained Lauren-Brooke Eisen, an attorney with the Brennan Center for Justice.
"It's so unique because they're not just looking at that one alleged crime or conviction," Eisen said. "They look at the myriad of collateral consequences when you have a record."
Observers agree the Defenders are unlikely to lose all their funding, but they worry that attacking the Defenders can become an attack on fairness in the courts.
"If we're going to start playing that game, we better shut down the whole system," Sussman said of the PBA chief’s call to defund the group. "It's very rare to find a police agency that doesn't also have two bad apples."
Sussman said he expected the commotion to blow over and the Bronx Defenders will still be standing when it does.
"Judges in the system know these attorneys provide huge service,” he said, “and that the system could not function without them.”
Correction (Feb. 18, 4:45 p.m.): Michael Sussman was previously identified as a former attorney with the NAACP Legal Defense Fund. Sussman was an attorney with the NAACP. Metro regrets the error.