Oral history details
|Date of interview:||Jan 29, 2015|
|Where relates to:||Illinois|
|Topics:||Federal Bail Reform Act, public defender independence, Public defense, and Training|
Full text of transcriptDownload PDF: Transcript
INTERVIEW OF EDWIN BURNETTE (unedited)
INTERVIEWER: ALAN HOUSEMAN
INTERVIEW DATE: JANUARY 29, 2015
TRANSCRIBER: HEIDI J. DARST, CSR, RPR, RMR, CRR, TCRR, TMR
Alan Houseman: This is an oral history with Edwin Burnette, who’s the Vice President of Defender Legal Services at the National Legal Aid & Defender Association. Today is Thursday, January 29th, 2015, and the interviewer is Alan Houseman. Ed, where did you grow up and where did you go to high school and college and ‑‑ and law school?
Edwin Burnette: I grew up on the west side of Chicago. Attended Catholic schools. Went to high school at St. Basilica, which is on the west side. And after that, I attended the United States Naval Academy. I spent 15 years in the ‑‑ in the Marine Corps. While in the Marine Corps, I went to law school at DePaul University and received my Juris Doctor from DePaul in 1977.
Alan Houseman: And what led you to go into the Marine Corps ‑‑ or the Naval Academy and then the Marine Corps?
Edwin Burnette: Well, actually, I went to the Naval Academy because I wanted to go into the Marine Corps. From an early age, I wanted to go into the Marine Corps and really didn’t find out about the Naval Academy until I was in high school and found out that you could go into the Marine Corps after graduating from the Naval Academy. And I was recruited for football, so I decided to go to the Naval Academy with a view toward going to the Marine Corps.
Alan Houseman: So did you play football at the Naval Academy?
Edwin Burnette: Yes, I played all four years at ‑‑ at that time, freshmen didn’t play with the varsity, but I played freshman football and varsity football and lettered three years in football at the Academy. I was recruited to play Lacrosse also, but since I was not that great a swimmer, I had to go to swim in sub squad to learn how to swim before I got out of the Academy, which is a requirement.
Alan Houseman: Okay. While you were in the Marine Corps, what did you do that relates to your future life as a lawyer?
Edwin Burnette: Well, when I went into the Marine Corps, it was Vietnam era. So when I graduated from the Naval Academy, I coached at the Academy for six months and then went to Basic School. And I entered Basic School expecting to go to Vietnam, but that was early, first six months in 1970 ‑‑ ’73. That’s when President Nixon stopped sending troops to Vietnam.
So while I was in Basic School, my orders were changed because I was no longer going to Vietnam and went Infantry on the west coast for a tour before going to law school.
Alan Houseman: And how did you get into legal work in the Marine Corps?
Edwin Burnette: Well, after a stint as platoon commander, I became the battalion legal officer and that’s where I got interested in law. Because I was a battalion legal officer for nine months and thought that I liked it well enough to try to pursue it, so I applied to law schools and got accepted to several. But DePaul was near home, so I thought I’d go to DePaul University.
Alan Houseman: And while you were at DePaul, did you do any work that relates to your later career?
Edwin Burnette: Well, actually, when I went to law school, I was in the Marine Corps. I was still working in the Marine Corps pretty much full time while I was there, but I ‑‑ I did clerkships or internships at neighborhood legal services while I was there, preventive legal services which served at that time Cabrini Green in the near north side of Chicago. Delivered services, criminal law and civil law services to the neighborhood. And I worked there to serve the community in different ways. Some of it was criminal, some of it was civil. But it got to the point where DePaul University and Cabrini Green had a natural flow back and forth of individuals who worked in the community.
Alan Houseman: So in the Marine Corps, what kind of legal work did you do and how did you get into it?
Edwin Burnette: Well, my first tour was as a defense counsel, and it was in Okinawa, Japan. And I had a trial partner who I’m still friends with today. We practiced for 13 months overseas as defense counsel. And I was supposed to rotate after 12 months, but I had a trial that was set. It was a barracks theft, and Marines hate barracks theft cases. And I ultimately stayed for that case. And they told me if I pled him out that I could go home, but if I tried it, I’d have to wait and my overseas control date may be altered so that I’d have to do another tour over there. All of this was pressure to try to get me to plead my client. We ultimately went to trial and won, which didn’t make me the most popular Marine on the island. But after that trial was over, I was able to come home to a duty station at the Navy Appellate Review Activity in ‑‑ here in Washington, DC.
Alan Houseman: Uh‑huh. And what was that work about?
Edwin Burnette: That was doing appeals for the Naval Service, Navy and Marine Corps. And there were Navy and Marines on staff. We didn’t have any other services because they had their own review activity. And I stayed there for about two years doing appeals for the ‑‑ the Navy and the Marine Corps and was on the case that ultimately extended the Federal Bail Reform Act to the military in terms of getting day‑for‑day credit for pretrial confinement, because at the time the military didn’t give day‑for‑day credit for pretrial confinement. So we argued before the Court of Military Appeals and ultimately got credit for service members who served pretrial detention to get day‑for‑day credit.
Alan Houseman: And what did you do after that two‑year stint?
Edwin Burnette: Well, after that, I went to Quantico, Virginia, as a defense counsel and had a trial team of Lynn Lauder was our chief; Bill Hooks, who’s now a judge in Illinois; Walter Bansley, who was the defense counsel in the movie about Guantanamo. He was the real defense counsel, and it’s nothing like the movie. But he ‑‑ his career was ‑‑ was ended because he subpoenaed the Commandant of the Marine Corps in that case.
And we had at that time during that 18 months the winningest record in ‑‑ in the Naval Service. We had the Staff Judge Advocate that visited us to find out what we were doing that we got such a high not‑guilty rate. And, of course, when they found that out, they broke up the team.
And after that, I went to be a prosecutor. My next duty station, my next assignment was as a prosecutor and I did that for two years. I enjoyed it. I had a wealth of experiences in how to put on a case as opposed to defending a case. But ultimately after that tour, I went back to being a defense counsel and went to Camp Lejeune as a Senior Defense Counsel. And that’s where I ended my career in 1987.
Alan Houseman: And was there any reason you ended your career or ‑‑
Edwin Burnette: Well ‑‑
Alan Houseman: ‑‑ was it the end of the time or ‑‑
Edwin Burnette: Yeah, it was the end of the time. Plus, I had an 11‑ and a 14‑year‑old. And my overseas control date was such that I was going to be away from home three out of the next five years. And for family reasons, I just couldn’t ‑‑ couldn’t resolve myself to leaving an 11‑ and 14‑year‑old for my wife to raise on her own and not being around and thought it was time for the family to come together in the same place and for some family stability. So I left the Marine Corps and went to work for the Cook County Public Defender Office.
Alan Houseman: This was in 1987?
Edwin Burnette: Yes.
Alan Houseman: And what was your initial role at Cook County Public Defender Office?
Edwin Burnette: Well, I started as a Grade I Attorney in Appeals. I had done appeals for the Department of the Navy, so I went into Appeals for ‑‑ for two years before going to the Felony Trial Division. And while in the Felony Trial Division, this is where I had most of my experience doing death penalty cases.
And Randolph Stone was the Public Defender at the time and persuaded me to go into management. I told him that I’d like to hold off until I finished my cases, many of which were death penalty cases, and got all of them de‑deathed except for one that went to death row and was later changed to life by Governor Ryan.
But after that, that’s when I got into the management track at the Public Defender Office as a trial supervisor in the Municipal Division and then as First Assistant for 11 years for Rita Fry, who succeeded Randolph Stone after he left. And then after Rita left, I took over as the Public Defender.
Alan Houseman: Describe a little bit about the Cook County Public Defender program. I mean, how many lawyers are there, roughly, or were when you were there and sort of the scope of its services?
Edwin Burnette: The law offices of Cook County Public Defender is a law office with about 470 lawyers. It has a total of about 800 because there are 75 investigators, 150 to 175 support staff throughout the office. Six municipal divisions; one in the south, one in the north, west municipal division. So it’s ‑‑ it’s a far‑flung operation spanning Cook County, which is a large county. And I would say at ‑‑ at both of the divisions or districts, you have anywhere ranging from 17, 18 people to over 50 people, depending on where the district is located.
But it’s ‑‑ you know, if you are in senior management and you want to travel from downtown to all the districts, some of them could take you better than an hour and a half to get to. And, of course, as First Assistant and as Public Defender, I did a lot of traveling between the districts.
But it was an organization that not only did criminal law, did juvenile justice, it also did civil dependency and neglect cases. And dependency and neglect had its own department and juvenile justice had its own department.
And at the time ‑‑ I don’t know if they still have that ‑‑ we had a multiple‑defendants division, which was kind of a conflict when there was more than one individual that was charged. There were a division of lawyers who represented some of the individuals in the multiple‑defendant case. So it was a wide variety of ‑‑ of cases that were handled by the office over a large geographical area.
Alan Houseman: Is Cook ‑‑ is Cook County the second largest county in the United States, or do you know? I mean, it’s ‑‑ I know it’s up there in one of the largest counties.
Edwin Burnette: Well, it ‑‑ you know, the office is the ‑‑ the second largest in ‑‑ in the United States. And it’s the largest ‑‑ it’s the second largest criminal justice system, integrated criminal justice system. I think LA is the only one that’s larger. There’s some debate as to whether or not LA is really a integrated criminal justice system. But both of them were quite large. Both of them have county jails that are huge and operate pretty much the same way in terms of the problems that they have to address. Size of the county, I’m not sure, but those offices are ‑‑ are the largest in the nation.
Alan Houseman: So during your years at Cook County, describe a little bit some of your work, particularly the ‑‑ with the capital cases, but I’m not limiting it to that. But you think ‑‑ illustrate the kind of work that, you know, good public defenders do.
Edwin Burnette: Well, when I was in the office, of course, Illinois still had the death penalty. Illinois has ‑‑ or Cook County has a homicide task force which does murder cases and all the death penalty cases in the First Municipal District. It’s a cadre of about 36 lawyers. Most of their cases are ‑‑ are homicides, although some of them carry some other cases so that they can kind of not focus on death penalty all of the ‑‑ all of the time.
Tremendous dedication by those individuals. They are not the only death penalty lawyers in the office. But when I was there, the ‑‑ the training for homicide task force was a key issue for ‑‑ because the stakes were so high. So those individuals had to be well trained. We had to look out for their welfare because sometimes compassion fatigue for individuals who get death is tremendous. So you have to allow for individuals needing a break. Individuals have to be cognizant of how they take care of themselves.
During that time, the use of social workers was still not really established. At the same time, the Illinois Supreme Court was deciding case by case that social workers were necessary as litigation specialists. In fact, if you tried a case, a death case without a social worker as litigation specialist, it was ineffective assistance for counsel. So it was making a transition.
In the cases that I tried while I was there did not have the benefit of a social worker provided by the office, I had to enlist the assistance of social workers otherwise from schools or from volunteers, investigators who knew social workers. I did work with investigators, but a lot of the social workers I worked with were through the investigators.
But shortly after I left, while I was First Assistant, as a matter of course litigation specialists were assigned to death penalty case ‑‑ cases and elevated the practice to where it should be because regardless of how committed a lawyer is, they still can’t scratch the itch that the need for a social worker creates because there are things that a social worker can get to that investigators and lawyers can’t. Social histories, dealing with the family, being able to make certain types of assessments based on their training that a lawyer is not trained to do.
Sometimes a social worker, many times a social worker will key a lawyer in to whether or not there’s a mental defect or ‑‑ or mental illness, whether there’s something that is in the family that may have impacted our client’s reaction in the case that’s under review.
So I think that how we addressed death penalty cases was magnified because of the finality of the death sentence, but I think it ‑‑ it brought to mind the very important part that training plays and ‑‑ and professional development plays in developing defense counsel and lawyers in general, but especially defense counsel. And ‑‑ and part of that was leadership development so that you could lead them effectively so that the things they need could be provided by individuals in leadership. But getting better at what we do has to be in the mindset of not only leaders but the individuals who practice and represent clients.
Alan Houseman: Did Cook County Public Defender do training, and what ‑‑ what did you do to develop leadership and make sure there was adequate training?
Edwin Burnette: Well, one of the first things that we had to do was to ‑‑ to make sure that individuals ‑‑ if you want to impress individuals about how some ‑‑ how important something is, you attach dollars to it. So a lot of our promotions took into account what type of training individuals had, what steps individuals had taken to get better at what they do. So during the selection process for promotion, how well trained an individual was had a direct impact on their possibilities for promotion.
So, of course, when individuals realized that in order for them to get promoted and get more money, they’d have to seek training, which we provided for them, but it wasn’t a natural instinct for individuals to seek training. But when you attach the dollars and cents to it and the ‑‑ the promotion, individuals sought training.
We kept track of training. When I became First Assistant, I established a training division with its own chief and an administrative assistant and ‑‑ and some interns to make sure that we tracked the training that was available for our lawyers and we kept track of how much training each ‑‑ each got. So we had a database that contained the training that each ‑‑ everybody in our office had, not just the lawyers, but the administrative assistants, the investigators.
Because our philosophy was that lawyers are important, but they’re not the only professional group that we had. We have administrators, administrative assistants, and administrative personnel who were professionals as well. We had investigators who were professionals as well. They had to be trained in all of their professional career areas, just like the lawyers did.
Since we had 475 lawyers, that was most of our training, but we had to be careful that in terms of professions that we had to take care to make sure that investigators and support staff were taken into account. And when you raise training to that level, it becomes very important to the people in the office.
Alan Houseman: How is the Cook County Public Defender funded?
Edwin Burnette: Well, primarily the funding comes from the County, which means the property taxes.
Alan Houseman: Uh‑huh.
Edwin Burnette: And oftentimes Cook County Public Defender’s Office is vetted against health care because the ‑‑ the funding comes from the same place. Oftentimes the Commissioner would say, “Well, we’ve got a decision to make. Do we fund public defense or public health?” And our response was, of course, you fund both because if you don’t fund one, it’s going to lead to the other.
And so traditionally, there was an attempt to reduce the amount of funding that the Public Defender received. And my job as First Assistant and Public Defender was to make sure that the Cook County Board was aware that the better you fund defense, the less it’s going to cost you, what I used to call the new math, because if you provide proper and effective defense counsel, there’s less time in pretrial detention, cases are resolved quicker, so there’s less time in pretrial detention, and it ended up saving the County money.
The problem that we had to confront is, is that most folks consider jail as an expense that you can’t do anything about. And my job was to convince them that if you provided more lawyers, that you would save millions on pretrial detention in jail. And once we got that point across, we were pretty effective in keeping our staffing levels. Not always, but most of the time.
Alan Houseman: By the way, how big is the ‑‑ is it one jail, the Cook County jail?
Cook County jail.
And how many ‑‑ what’s the rough size of it inmate‑wise?
I would say that it is 2,200 people ‑‑
‑‑ at any given ‑‑ or that was ‑‑ it was then. And that didn’t really account for how many people there were in the medical facilities. There was the Cermack medical facility that was in close proximity to the Cook County jail. And when I was there, there was a consent decree that looked to reduce the number of people in Cook County jail, and they were trying to devise ways to reduce the number. Well, that played right into my hands of the new math. Give me the more defense counsel, we’ll move these cases faster, less time in pretrial defense ‑‑ detention, you save money. At the same time, it addresses the concerns of the consent decree by reducing the number of individuals in Cook County jail.
How long were you chief defender or chief executive officer of the ‑‑
I was for six years.
And I should have asked this earlier. What led you to go initially into the Cook County Public Defender program?
Well, when I went to law school, I was in the military. And I went to law school because I wanted to be a civil rights lawyer. Well, you don’t get a chance to practice much civil rights in the military, so I didn’t get a chance to address that there.
But after coming out of the military, I had a couple of options. The Cook County Board president who I’d interviewed with wanted me to go into the state attorney’s office. I had an offer from a law firm, they were going to pay me $52,000. At that time, $52,000 was a lot of money.
What year was this?
This was 1987.
Edwin Burnette: And so I went to work for the Public Defender’s Office for $20,000. It took a while for my wife to get over that. She was not happy with that ‑‑ that decision, but she knew why I made that decision, because I thought that the practice of defending clients and trying to strengthen the right to counsel was an area that I wanted to direct my career in. So I ‑‑ as I said before, I started in the appeals division and ‑‑ and later went through the ranks in the Public Defender’s Office.
I was also the union steward for Appeals, because the year before I started in the office, the office lawyers unionized. So while I was there, I was the union steward for the appeals division.
Alan Houseman: Interesting. So why did you leave the chief executive officer and what did you do?
Edwin Burnette: Well, I left because my term was up. I was not renewed because the president of the County Board and I were not on the best of terms because I had filed suit against the president of the County Board because I felt that there was political ‑‑ a political attempt to impact the running of my office in a way that was not beneficial to my clients. And I retained counsel. And quite honestly, I’m ‑‑ I’m surprised that I wasn’t fired when I retained counsel.
But since I was able to retain counsel, that counsel advised me that I had some ethical decisions to make; that the things that the president of the County Board was attempting to do, like furlough my employees when he didn’t have the authority, to try to get them to resign for no reason other than the fact that he had taken over as the president of the County Board, to try to put people in my office but not on my payroll, put people on the payroll that weren’t in my office. Basically, he was trying to use my office as a patronage dump, so I filed suit. And within 10 days of leaving the office, the Illinois appellate ‑‑ appellate court granted my petition and established the independence of the Public Defender Office.
At the same time, I had filed suit against the judiciary for much the same thing, and Illinois Supreme Court within 10 days of my leaving decided in ‑‑ in our favor. And the Illinois Supreme Court expedited the case so that they would decide it before I left office, which I thought was really cool.
Alan Houseman: Well, you were in a long line of very prominent lawyers that have held this position.
Edwin Burnette: Yes.
Alan Houseman: Randolph Stone. Explain a little bit what happened to Randolph and your ‑‑ the woman who Fry __.
Edwin Burnette: Yes. Fry.
Alan Houseman: Yes.
Edwin Burnette: Well, first of all, Randolph Stone was ‑‑ was the individual who started the ‑‑ started the journey for the independence of the Public Defender’s Office in Cook County because he’s the one who lobbied for the Public Defender Act which provided for a six‑year term for the Public Defender.
He campaigned against the judges having control over who came into the office. Because when I came into the office, I had to be interviewed by judges who decided whether or not I could go into the Public Defender Office. He campaigned and got that removed. The statute that he lobbied for and was successful in getting passed was to take it from under the authority of the judges to the authority of the County Board.
So Randolph Stone played a tremendous part in the independence of the Cook County Public Defender’s Office.
Rita Fry took it to another ‑‑ another level. And ‑‑
Alan Houseman: What ‑‑ what happened to ‑‑ what ‑‑ where did he go after?
Edwin Burnette: He went to ‑‑ he left the office to join the faculty at the University of Chicago Mandel Legal Clinic.
Alan Houseman: Right.
Edwin Burnette: You know, as ‑‑ as you know, he came from the public defender service in ‑‑ in Washington, DC, before coming to Cook County. And he was also instrumental in getting social workers involved in death penalty cases which at that time was not very, very popular.
So he was there for ‑‑ of the three of us, he was there for the shortest time but may have had the greatest impact in terms of independence of the office.
So after he left to go to the University of Chicago, the president of Cook County Board chose Rita Fry. I was a supervisor in Municipal at the time and I was going about my business and got a call from ‑‑ from Rita Fry asking me to consider being her First Assistant. And I told her that I would talk to my wife and get back to her. Talked to my wife and I got back to her.
So I was not the individual everybody expected to be the First Assistant. It was a shock to the office. And the individual who everybody thought was going to be the public defender had already scheduled his celebration party, so it was a little awkward.
But I took over as First Assistant in the spring of 1992 and served in that capacity for about 11 years. During that time, Rita worked towards making sure that the office operated with a level of independence that allowed us to look out for the interest of our ‑‑ our clients and not the interest of the politicians.
Alan Houseman: And I don’t ‑‑ I can’t remember. What happened to Rita? Where did ‑‑ where did she ‑‑
Edwin Burnette: Rita ‑‑ Rita, who had introduced me to NLADA, along with Randy Stone, left the office and decided that she no longer wanted to be involved with the law. So she left and she went into a consulting business ‑‑
Alan Houseman: Uh‑huh.
Edwin Burnette: ‑‑ and had a contract with the Housing Authority in Chicago and did consulting after that.
I think she’s since retired now, truly retired, and is ‑‑ Rita loves to travel, so my guess is she’s traveled to most of the continents since her retirement, although I think she had been to all of them before she retired.
I get together with her and Randy from time to time just to keep them updated on what’s going on. Sometimes I go to ask for advice. While I was Public Defender, I met with them regularly to ask for advice. But I see Randy a lot more often because he’s still in the field than I see Rita, but we’re all pretty much in touch with each other. And I anticipate within the next six weeks that we’ll probably have lunch together.
Alan Houseman: So after you left the Public Defender’s Office, what did you do?
Edwin Burnette: Well, I embarked on a venture to consult and I thought that I was going to be a consultant. And I think that I did a lot of good consulting for the nine months that I did it; however, I was atrocious at collecting. Billing was not my forte, so I basically did a lot of free work during that nine months, which doesn’t ‑‑ free work is not digestible. It’s hard ‑‑ you can’t eat when you ‑‑
Alan Houseman: Right.
Edwin Burnette: I had been offered an opportunity to work for NLADA as the Senior VP. I was then faced with the opportunity to come to NLADA, but my lawsuit was pending. This was the December and January before my term was up. So I couldn’t accept because if I would have left Cook County, both of the lawsuits would have died. So in conscience, I had to stay there to see if I could get some resolution to those lawsuits before I left office because I knew that the president of the County Board, who I was suing, was going to seek to appoint somebody who would withdraw the lawsuits. So I couldn’t accept.
So after I ‑‑ I left the office, I went consulting. And nine months later, NLADA was restructuring and Joanne called me and said different position, but this is what it involves, are you interested. And of course I was, followed through, and came to NLADA in January of 2010.
Alan Houseman: And what has been your role here and your work here?
Edwin Burnette: Well, I have been the Vice President of Defender Legal Services, which means that when I started, I oversaw the advancement of the National Defender Leadership Initiative, which is now an institute which was sparked by the Vera Institute training of defender leaders to try to meet the leadership needs of the defender community. The common phrase was leading defenders is like herding cats. Well, we had to move past that, and that’s one of the things that I oversaw at the time.
And then there was a reform element which the National Center for Equal Justice, it was called at the time, with David Carroll and Phyllis Mann and Jon Mosher which did a lot of the office assessment throughout the nation and wrote reports. And I oversaw that. I was the one that gave the go‑ahead for the Gideon Alerts that we used to send to the field. And ‑‑
Alan Houseman: And what are those?
Edwin Burnette: Gideon Alerts were based on an event or happening or an article that the defender community needed to be aware of. Bringing that to their attention and providing a short commentary on the importance and what we needed to be thinking about. And it was done in a way so the Gideon Alert itself wasn’t that long, because you know how people’s attention span is. So there was a link to a more lengthy dealing of the subject matter. And we also did tweets with the 140 characters about the particular issue and where they could go to get further information on it. That went not only to the defender community but the criminal justice community; Department of Justice, Department of Education, defenders, some prosecutors got these alerts just so that people would know what the law was and the implications that it had.
What I hadn’t planned on doing that I ended up doing when I came to NLADA is my involvement with grants because while I was at the Public Defender’s Office, I oversaw several grants, mostly with juveniles, had not done any grant writing or grant reports or anything of that nature.
Well, six months after I got to NLADA, I was invited into that area, let’s say, so I was doing grant reports and ‑‑ not any proposals, but I was ‑‑ I was doing the grant reports and the report on the deliverables and things of that nature.
And I would say over the course of the last five years, I’ve probably done six of the seven of those. Done one ‑‑ worked on one proposal. But mainly trying to impact the deliverables under all of the grants.
A big part of our work, whether it was NCEJ that I had mentioned, the National Defender Leadership Initiative, a lot of those were fashioned to address deliverables that we had principally from the Open Society Institute then, now the Open Society Foundation and the Ford Foundation. And it involved reform efforts throughout the country, the effort to try to extend the National Defender Leadership Institute to different law schools or colleges so that leadership could be taught in colleges or ‑‑ or ‑‑ or law schools in partnership.
For example, if you had a law school that wanted to provide for leadership training for future lawyers, partner with a university who had management training or leadership training so that you could get that done.
So it was those types of things that started out delivering technical assistance, training. Technical assistance and training has pretty much been and probably will continue to be the lifeblood of Defender Legal Services.
Alan Houseman: How would you ‑‑ you’re about to leave here, so how would you assess the role of Defender Legal Services in the defender community?
Edwin Burnette: Well, the community is different now. NLADA has other individuals who are in organizations that are bar associations for defenders. And that’s a fact of life now. And I think that the lifeblood of NLADA continues to be the training that it ‑‑ that it delivers, the ability to convene ‑‑ NLADA to convene individuals from different sectors of the criminal justice community. It can command an audience with the Department of Justice and ‑‑ and the Attorney General him or herself, hopefully soon to be a herself. And I think that it plays a major part in bringing the defender community together.
It still has the ability or continues to have the ability to deliver technical assistance, which we do, ranging from visiting an office, giving expertise on organizational development, to answering telephone calls of defenders in the field who have issues with certain types of ethical or practice issues that we address on a daily basis.
What the frontier that NLADA is leading that I don’t believe that anybody else has the capability to do, and that is in research. Research is a very important part of how we approach defense, public defense especially, because we’ve got to make the case to our funders that the new math that I alluded to earlier is in fact the case; that increased funding will increase the bottom line for the funding, the municipality; that it will satisfy the needs of the community and that it will provide better public safety. Because outcomes are better for our clients the earlier defense counsel are involved, but it’s also better for the system. So early involvement by defense counsel builds confidence in the criminal justice system, which is not where it should be right now nationwide.
NLADA has the wherewithal to communicate and advocate for those issues in a way that no one else can. And the reason why I say that is because in the early ’90s, I attended on the order of Randolph Stone my first NLADA conference. I noticed immediately that not only were there lawyers there from the civil and defender side, but there were also clients. And clients had a tremendous influence on that conference and the direction of NLADA.
Well, NLADA is the only organization nationally or otherwise that engages clients in its policymaking, in its advocacy, in its reform, in its training. NLADA is the only organization that can bring that to bear.
And I think that some of the work that the other organizations do is ‑‑ is ‑‑ is great, but the reason why when I went to that annual conference and I decided to get involved with NLADA was because of the clients, and it’s still the clients.
Alan Houseman: So you’ve been in a variety of settings within the public defender world and the military and here at NLADA. How ‑‑ what ‑‑ what do you hope in the future will happen with public defenders? And I suppose I have to put it in the context of the criminal justice system, but ‑‑
Edwin Burnette: Uh huh.
Alan Houseman: ‑‑ what ‑‑ what ‑‑ what directions would you like to see? What ‑‑ what are the problems you see and what are the challenges and how can we move forward?
Edwin Burnette: One of the ‑‑ the biggest challenges that I was made aware of shortly after joining NLADA is even when you develop avenues where people are willing to listen, you have to have a message that is simple, direct, focused and to the point. And that means that you have to have a national voice.
The challenge for the defender community is establishing what that national voice is going to consist of because funders, Department of Justice, and the community at large is not going to respond unless the defender community has an agenda that they buy into, that they can communicate effectively.
One of the biggest complaints that we received the first couple of years I was here was that we have different parts of the defender community saying different things. Even within the last two years, we’ve had a significant part of the defender community that disagreed on a major issue, and so the Department of Justice took it off the table because there wasn’t ‑‑ we weren’t together on that. There needs to be a meeting of the minds as to what the agenda items are going to be and how we’re going to communicate that to the criminal justice community and the community at large.
So I think that there are some things to offer. Organizations are going to have to figure out what their part’s going to be, what their niche is going to be, and see how they can come together and form an agenda.
I think that one of the things that NLADA, one of the ways NLADA plays in that is that we are the individual who are convening and is putting forth the research agenda.
We’ve published tool kits on what individuals ‑‑ information or data that individual offices need to collect, how to establish a research capacity. NLADA is at the forefront of bringing research and the research mindset to the defender community because everybody else is speaking the language of best evidence and research‑based decision making. That’s what research is all about. So I think that NLADA holds the key to unlock the door to a community of consciousness about the importance of the right to counsel, whether it’s civil or defender.
Alan Houseman: Do you have any final words or ‑‑ to say about either your life or what you see important in the future?
Edwin Burnette: Well, I think that a continuing relationship with NLADA is ‑‑ is desirable. I think whatever I do is going to be involved with representing poor people who are in need of counsel. NLADA will always be a play‑ ‑‑ player in that equation. I’m not just an employee of NLADA, but I’m also a lifetime member. My commitment to NLADA because of NLADA’s commitment to clients will always be there.
I have not ‑‑ and I say this ‑‑ I’ve said this to the staff a couple of times. I have never met people who work so hard and are so driven to do what they do than I have since coming to NLADA. These folks are loyal, they’re hardworking, and they put in whatever it takes to get it done. If we can just communicate what they do to the community at large, we will have overcome a major obstacle, because we’ve been getting it done for years, people just don’t know it. So we’ve got to make people know it.
Alan Houseman: Uh‑huh.
Edwin Burnette: And I’d like to be a part of that.
Alan Houseman: Great. Well, this is terrific. Thank you.
Edwin Burnette: My pleasure.
Alan Houseman: Yes.
[End of interview.]