Vanderbilt Lawyer - Volume 35, Number 2

An Eye-Opening Summer at the Federal Public Defender's Office

by Stephen A. Lund, '06 Stephen A. Lund

If you had asked me last year where I would work over the summer, probably the last answer I would have given was the Federal Public Defender's Office. Like many of my classmates, I was seeking a summer associate position with a law firm. But, last spring, the Federal Public Defender's office was looking for summer interns. I'm primarily interested in litigation, decided to apply, and was offered a position during my interview. By that time, I had other enticing offers, but because of my interest in litigation, I decided I was more likely to gain hands-on experience in the Federal Public Defender's office. I reluctantly turned down the other offers, wondering if I would regret it later. Those doubts were entirely unfounded.

At first, I was given only small projects, such as researching memoranda that attorneys in the department needed for various motions or habeas corpus petitions. These dull projects confirmed my apprehensions, and I resigned myself to a long summer.

Then, in early June, I accompanied two attorneys on a day trip to Fort Campbell, Kentucky. Each month, two attorneys from the Federal Defender's office travel to Fort Campbell to spend a day handling cases arising at the large military base on the Tennessee-Kentucky border. Although most charges are minor, they are considered federal crimes because they occur on a military base. At Fort Campbell, I had my first experience meeting directly with clients. I also checked a presentencing report, found an objectionable error, and advised the attorney, Hugh Mundy, to raise the objection at trial. He made the objection, which turned out to be moot, as the judge had the proper information, but would have otherwise been sustained. Hugh also allowed me, along with other interns, to prepare examination questions for his use in a sentencing hearing. It was a long, exhausting day, but I was happy that my work was used and appreciated.

I also met with clients in "lock-up," a holding facility for persons charged with crimes or awaiting hearings, where I helped answer their questions about their status. This face-to-face contact impressed me with the very real impact of the law on individuals.

The highlight of the summer came during an emotional sentencing hearing for a woman convicted of transporting methamphetamine. Her attorney, Jay Steed, asked Judge Aleta Trauger to consider the defendant's unusual personal history. Born in Mexico after her mother fled Los Angeles because her father had threatened to kill her if she were brought to term, she was nevertheless brought home to Los Angeles within hours of her birth. Her father demonstrated his resentment by beating her and forced her siblings to abuse her as well. She left home at 12, became pregnant at 13 by a man at least seven years her elder, and had borne him two more children by the time she was 18. Although he was as abusive as her father, she eventually married him. When she finally left him because of the abuse, he threatened to kill their children unless she returned. When she did so, he forced her to run drugs for him, leading to her arrest.

I was dumbfounded by this woman's terrible life and hoped the court would consider that as a mitigating factor in determining her sentence. The prosecutor asked Judge Trauger not to deviate from the sentencing guidelines, noting that many people come from hard places, but choose not to engage in crime. Judge Trauger reduced the defendant's sentence, noting that these circumstances were truly exceptional, and that the defendant, while culpable, essentially did not have the freedom to choose not to commit the crime. I came away with the realization that our justice system can be and sometimes is truly just. I will never forget seeing the defendant and her sister embrace as the hearing concluded.

The summer went by quickly. Among many meaningful assignments, I prepared proposed jury instructions and the accompanying motion memorandum. My hands-on litigation experience confirmed my desire to focus on litigation as a career.

But, more importantly, I learned how important legal work can be by becoming immersed in a sector of society I had rarely encountered before. In law school, we deal primarily with the law in theory; we seldom see first-hand how important our chosen profession is to so many people. While I am unsure about a career in public interest work, I now have an acute awareness of how important and valuable it is.

Last year, I didn't imagine myself working at the Federal Public Defender's office. And, frankly, working for a firm would have made my job search this fall significantly easier - maybe unnecessary. But I was truly fortunate to have the experiences I did at the Public Defender's Office. Looking back, I would not have spent last summer any other way.