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Director Rachel Rossi of the Office for Access to Justice Delivers Remarks During the National Public Defense Day Tour Stop in Las Vegas


Las Vegas, NV
United States

Thank you AAG Polite for your leadership. Your partnership in this celebration of public defense is reflective of how you’ve pursued your career and work – with a focus on equity and justice for all.

Thank you to Judge Boulware, for assisting to put this event together, and thank you to all of our esteemed panelists, Professor Hanan, to UNLV Law School for hosting us, and all of the students taking time out of your busy schedules to join this event.

The Justice Department’s Office for Access to Justice was reestablished by Attorney General Garland with a mission to break down barriers to the promises and protections of our legal systems.

A central component of our mandate is to implement access to justice policy initiatives in the area of criminal indigent defense, to serve as the principal legal advisor for the Justice Department on the constitutional right to counsel and the other rights guaranteed under the Sixth Amendment and to act as the liaison between the Justice Department and the public defense community.

In that spirit, for 60th anniversary of Gideon, we are traveling across the country, in partnership with Justice Department officials, to lift up the right to counsel, to listen and learn about the critical issues faced by defenders, and to celebrate and support those who’ve dedicated their careers to public defense.

We launched this tour with Deputy Attorney General Lisa Monaco in Miami, Florida, where we focused on barriers and innovations related to access to counsel in pretrial detention.

We then headed to Tulsa, Oklahoma, where we met with the organization Still She Rises, and discussed racial equity and holistic defense models of public defense. 

Yesterday, we visited the Muscogee (Creek) Nation Attorney General and Tribal defenders to discuss unique issues in public defense faced by Tribes.

And after today, we’re heading to Nashville, Tennessee, where we will discuss resources and federal funding for public defense.

Then we’ll travel to Des Moines, Iowa, to discuss bar panel pay rates and rural defense issues.

The tour will culminate in an ATJ-hosted reception on March 17, 2023, at the Justice Department, that will be livestreamed for the public.

Each of these stops on our tour has a specific focus. Today, we’re focused on elevating the importance of the public defense role and function and encouraging indigent defense as a career path. 

Although the public perception of public defenders differs in different communities, and has continued to change over time, we know that serious recruitment and retention issues endure across the country.

Many issues contribute to this – underfunding, under-resourcing and low pay are some of the largest critical barriers.

It can also be an emotionally overwhelming job.

And sometimes public defenders combat lack of understanding about the constitutional importance of their work. This is most evident when they get questions like – how can you represent that person? Or, what if your client is guilty?

Or, lack of resources have created misconceptions about defenders as less skilled lawyers. As a former public defender myself, I am no stranger to hearing the term “public pretender.”

And more times than I like, I was asked when I would be done with my time at the public defender’s office so I could become a “real lawyer.”

And yet, public defense, is one of the few constitutionally-mandated professions that we have in this country.

The public defender is the gatekeeper to the Sixth Amendment, tasked with the weighty responsibility of ensuring the constitutional promises core to the foundation of our justice system — innocent until proven guilty, speedy trial, due process, reasonable search and seizure — are realized.

As we discuss this topic today, we’re honored to be joined by AAG Kenneth Polite.

Our offices are continuing to explore a number of partnerships and collaborations on access to justice.

As AAG Polite mentioned, I’m looking forward to joining OPDAT’s resident legal advisor in Ghana to visit with and learn about their support to Ghana’s legal aid commission and the commission’s public defender division. 

We will use the visit to Ghana to consider opportunities for additional types of support, including the possibility of study exchange visits to the United States to share best practices and lessons learned to advance additional progress. This is one way we’re working to support international partners in expanding the understanding of the critical role of access to counsel globally.

Another effort the Office for Access to Justice will soon launch, is a multi-city visit of law schools to promote public defense work and careers in the fall of 2023. 

During these law school visits, students at several geographically diverse law schools will have an opportunity to hear about public defense and to ask questions about the challenges and rewards of this work.

We may also replicate models like today’s panel, to invite local public defenders, law school professors, prosecutors, or members of the judiciary, and those who also have public defense backgrounds to participate. And we may highlight unique defender models, including holistic defense, and defenders that work outside of criminal courtrooms, like in school hearings and other nontraditional areas.

It’s an honor to join such a distinguished panel today, and I’m looking forward to engaging and hearing how the Office for Access to Justice can learn from and support law students considering careers in public defense.

Access to Justice
Updated March 9, 2023