Brad Morris, whose office has defended the poor in court for eight years, sees his job as a way to protect the U.S. Constitution.
Friday, Morris was sworn in for a third four-year term as the public defender for the Northeastern Judicial Circuit.
He has led the office since its inception in 2004, building it from the ground up into an office with 14 attorneys and 10 support staff.
In a conversation with The Times about his role in the community, Morris spoke of his defense of the circuit’s poor as a civic duty.
“We’re defending our clients within the realm of the Constitution against the government depriving of their liberty, which is a pretty important role,” Morris said.
Morris likens his job’s role in protecting democracy to his recovery from a wreck that seriously injured him in 2009.
Despite his injuries, Morris said he had to exercise his muscles and take part in extensive physical therapy. Defending others’ rights within the parameters of the Constitution works the same way, he said.
“If you don’t exercise something, it’s not going to be there,” Morris said. “That’s certainly true of these various rights.”
Morris said a case in Texas, where he said a man who stole a chicken from a supermarket and received a life sentence, inspired him to work in criminal defense.
And now, Morris has been on that side of the courtroom for some 35 years, though today, his role is more administrative.
Morris sees his defense of the area’s poor as a “Christian-based” work. And Morris finds the work “rewarding.” But he says it’s not for everybody.
“You need to have that zeal for defending individuals against the government,” Morris said.
Currently, Morris said the office defends about 3,000 cases a year, which in Hall only includes felony cases, and in Hall and Dawson counties range in scope from probation revocations to homicides. Death penalty cases also are handled outside of the office.
Like other county offices, the public defender’s office has had to deal with budget cutbacks in both counties.
Still, Morris said attorneys in the office often work as many as 80 to 90 hours working on their clients’ cases.
“They’re there pretty much all the time. It’s because they like what they do,” Morris said. “I explain to them each of them have 2,000 or 3,000 years of penitentiary time on their shoulders ... they seem to take that very seriously.”
“The consequences are so devastating that you really need to do the best you can to represent them.”
But Morris admits that his clients aren’t the easiest to represent. Some have a harder time getting to court hearings. And there are other issues, too.
“A poor person, from a jury’s standpoint, might look like what a criminal person would look like,” Morris said. “There are just a lot of things that come along that are a lot more difficult as far as trials go.”
He doesn’t win all the time. And he isn’t supposed to. Instead, he works to get the best result for the office’s clients that he can, considering the client’s circumstances.
“I think the state (attorneys) keeps us honest and we keep them honest,” Morris said.
But determining clients’ guilt isn’t part of what Morris encourages attorneys in the public defender’s office to do, he said.
Instead, his philosophy is to determine what defenses the client has and to articulate that argument for him or her in court.
“Regular people like to see black and white,” Morris said. “I think a lawyer’s job is to defend his client, and a lot of times, that’s gray.”
“As a professional, our job really isn’t to decide whether somebody did something or not, our job is to try and see what defenses they have. If you can’t find something about your client to have some positive feeling (about them) ... then somebody else should represent them. Sometimes, you have to dig sort of deep (to find it).”