Connecticut takes pride in creation of the nation’s first public defender system. Representation of the indigent accused of crimes is important work. Why, then, does the state seem content to let this proud legacy collapse amid the ugliest sort of squabbling?
In recent weeks, five of the seven commissioners running the Public Defender Services Commission have resigned. (One position was already vacant.) The attorney general has secured outside counsel to investigate. The chief public defender has lawyered up. And now the governor has appointed a retired justice of the State’s Supreme Court, Richard N. Palmer, to something – anything – to right the faltering agency.
In the meantime, hundreds of lawyers in the commission are all but hiding under their desks waiting for the next bombshell to explode.
Everyone is tip-toing around the obvious truth: Chief Public Defender Tashon Bowden-Lewis has got to go. But calling into question her ability would yield the ugly charge of racism. Race pandering has come home to roost with vengeance. Ms. Bowden-Lewis, you see, is black; she’s demonstrated a card-sharp’s ability to play the race card.
First, some fundamentals.
The Public Defender Services Commission is overseen by seven commissioners. The commission is run by a Chief Public Defender. Public defenders are state-paid attorneys located in every courthouse in the state whose job it is to represent indigent folks accused of crimes. The overwhelming majority of defendants charged with crimes in Connecticut are represented by public defenders.
Enter Tashun Bowden-Lewis, who became Chief Public Defender in 2022. She is the first women of color to occupy the position. She is also a social justice warrior. “She has always provided a rigorous defense for her clients,” Quinnipiac Magazine reported when she was tapped for the job as chief defender. (She is a graduate of the Quinnipiac University law school.) “But her commitment to social just runs just as deeply. Equity, inclusion, fairness, accessibility – they all matter on her watch.”
Therein lies the rub.
Nothing should matter more to a lawyer than his or her client. That’s what the duty of zealous advocacy requires. The commissioners and Ms. Bowden-Lewis haven’t seen eye to eye on the matter of appointments within the commission. She has favored appointees who are black. The commission has overruled her, selecting candidates for leadership positions whom the commission regards as more qualified, and who were not, coincidentally, black.
For this, the commissioners were accused of being racists. Tempers flared. Word has it that Ms. Bowden-Lewis sent her bosses a nasty letter accusing them of racist micro-management. Her human resources chief quit, asserting that Ms. Bowden-Lewis made it impossible to do her job and played the race card so hard that it became impossible for the director, approved by the commission, to do her job.
In normal times, you fire an employee who can’t take direction.
But these aren’t normal times. In the brave new world of diversity, equity and inclusion the “historically marginalized” get special treatment in the name of “systemic reform.” We’re all supposed to examine our “implicit biases” and “check our privilege,” or some such. The result is an ugly sort of tolerance of what one news report calls “racial favoritism.”
So rather than be called a racist by a black bully in her playpen, five commissioners, all of whom are white – two superior court judges, an experienced criminal defense lawyer, a lawyer in private practice, and a social worker – quit. They walked off the job, “woke” reputations intact. Only one commissioner remains, a former state legislator who just happens to be black.
And now we have a leaderless commission; a feckless governor appointing a former Supreme Court justice to come to the rescue and do something, anything, to stop the bleeding; a private law firm investigating; and, threats of litigation all around. Ms. Bowden-Lewis has all but declared: “You can’t fire me, I’m black.”
In the meantime, morale among public defenders statewide has plummeted.
I pity the poor defendants who wonder whether their lawyers are up to the task in this new racialized hot house.
Connecticut deserves better than this.
Black privilege is a thing. Race matters. But you don’t get to play lord of the new plantation because you were born black. Diversity, equity and inclusion are variables in the equation we used to arrive at justice.
But equality before the law matters. Ms. Bowden-Lewis has managed to assert racial privilege in a shocking and repulsive manner. Rather than call her bluff, terrified commissioners quit. This racial bullying won’t end well for anyone involved.
If Ms. Bowden-Lewis can’t do the job she should quit. I’m sure the Yale Law School would hire her in a heartbeat. She could give a symposium on racism in public agencies. It would be quite the ironic performance.