At the Multnomah County Courthouse, the fourth floor elevator door opened to a scene one doesn't witness every day: A man with a lolling jaw and the vacant stare of heavy meds walked past a group of three sharp-suited district attorneys in frantic discussion, I think, about one of their divorces. Next to them an obese teenage mother on a hardwood bench bounced her baby up and down, up and down, in a futile effort to stop it from crying. In all, 50 disparate, bewildered people were gathered in this hallway on a recent Friday morning.
It's a public defender's job to shepherd these folks through the criminal justice system, giving each and every one of them the best quality legal advice while simultaneously managing a caseload dwarfing that of a DMV desk clerk's.
"That level of chaos is about typical," said Supervising Public Defender Liz Wakefield, as she calmly led me through the throng toward a pre-trial conference room. "Much of my work is about multi-tasking."
Inside the pre-trial conference room, three district attorneys—whose starting salaries are in excess of $50,000, paid by the county—sat on one side of a table covered in case file boxes. Opposite them sat three public defenders like Wakefield—whose average starting salary is around $40,000, paid by the state. An industrial 1970s coffee machine sat defeated and unplugged in the corner as the two sides negotiated in the bluntest of terms about the merits and disadvantages of every single case in the boxes, one by one.
From conferencing, we returned to the throng outside the elevators to seek out Wakefield's clients. Of five, three had shown up. The first, a middle-aged white man in an Oregon Ducks cap, had his case postponed while the state looked for more witnesses. The second, an African American gentleman also aged about 50, needed reminding by Wakefield to head down to Walgreens and refill his medication before returning to court for his pre-trial date.
"We aren't social workers," Wakefield told me, after talking with him on the stairs. "But they're our clientele. If someone isn't taking their medication, they're not going to be able to function in court."
Her next client was out of state, caring for his dying mother. Wakefield waited for 10 minutes outside the criminal procedure courtroom in order to plead with a judge not to issue a bench warrant. She explained she'd had "good contact" with the man and expected him to return to Oregon soon. Her request was granted and his case was set over.
Wakefield then found her next client being defended on the sixth floor by another lawyer, on a different charge. The woman was undergoing drug treatment and had been banned from driving, but didn't seem very concerned about beating the DUI charge for which Wakefield was defending her—the likely consequence of which was more drug treatment and another driving ban.
"This is important," Wakefield told her. It's unclear if her advice sank in.
Wakefield's last client never showed up, and will have a bench warrant on her record from now on. Not all cases can be won—but today is over. On Monday, Wakefield will return to a brand-new hallway filled with people who have nowhere else to turn.