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Why Do We Do It?

This article appears in the fall 2014 issue of The Florida Defender, a publication of the Florida Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers. The author, Aaron Delgado, is the president-elect of the FACDL Volusia chapter at the time of publication.

"In this county, first you get the money, then you get the power, THEN you get the woman." Tony Montana[1]

Today is May 13, 2014, and it is the ten-year anniversary of my law-school graduation. A decade ago, I sweated in line for my diploma (which I hung high on my wall for years so clients wouldn't see how wet the ink was). I was one of the lucky-to-be-employed members of the class of 2004, bound for a career in "civil litigation" (whatever that meant.) I did not set out to be a criminal defense attorney; not to say criminal law was not alluring - it was just in the mad law-school rush to find a job, I never thought of a career in criminal defense. I had dreamed of high-rise buildings in powerful cities, where the legal elite handled complex business disputes involving vast sums of money and tremendously complex issues. I knew I would have to labor for years and bill my life away in six-minute increments; then, one day I would make "partner," the sky would part, and money and prestige would rain down on me. Seven months after graduation, I left behind my high-rise dream and with equal ambition "hung out my shingle" entering into private practice. I had never worked for the State, either as a prosecutor or a public defender, but when one of my partners left, I inherited his files and promptly ordered a series of West books on criminal law. Pragmatism, survival, necessity - I wish I had more noble words to explain why I first began practicing criminal defense. It helped that doing criminal law was interesting - my client's stories had a visceral attraction to me. Even if I could relate to a business-litigation issue, it didn't resonate with me. The further down the rabbit hole I went, the more I realized this is where I should have been the whole time. The law went from being a just career to become a defining aspect of who I am.

So for me, it is not a question of why I choose to practice criminal law; for me, the question is why I have made it my identity. I started this article several times. First, with a Scarface quote about power and money; then, with some cynicism about the post-graduation desperation to find a job as a segue into something more. But being cynical or being funny is a defense mechanism; this topic, like our careers, demands more. I do this job because I hate bullies and cannot stand abuses of authority.

Because my father worked for the US Foreign Service, I grew up overseas in countries where people just vanished if the government decided they should. Against backdrops of martial law, my parents always taught me to question authority. I was in second grade when my mother told me about an experiment where volunteers were told to administer electric shocks to a subject and increase the voltage with each incorrect answer. She told me people would increase the shocks past a limit they were told was lethal because they were doing what they were told. She said she hoped I would never do such a thing and that I would always know better. She taught me that respect for authority was best tempered with skepticism and that I should always do what I felt was right, particularly if it was not easy. As a kid, this meant standing up to teachers and parents. It also meant getting grounded a lot.

Then, when I was in 7th grade, I was picked on repeatedly by an older kid[2]. In any case, when I came home and complained about what was happening, my mother insisted that I stand up for myself even if it meant getting into a fight. She told me that even if I lost the fight, the other kid would leave me alone me because bullies only like "soft targets." So the next time the kid knocked my books out of my hand and shoved me, I hit him as hard as I could in the face. Both of us got suspended. But the bullying stopped.

Criminal defense attorneys stand for those who lack the ability to defend themselves. We fight with all our might against the massive power of the government because our system was created on the principle that only in a truly adversarial system is there any hope of a fair outcome. When I go to Court, I take my own experiences with authority with me, and I add to my own experiences a decade of seeing what has happened to my clients and my friends. I may not get racially profiled or deal with cops thinking they can mess with me, but my friend "T" does, constantly. I have seen his helplessness firsthand, and it enrages and emboldens me. Once I pulled up in jeans and an old tee shirt to provide legal assistance; the police officer, who did not recognize me out of my suit, was incredibly rude to me. When I reminded him he knew me, it all changed instantly. Had I not arrived when I did, I am sure "T" would have been arrested for no reason. The next day at the gym, "T" and I were talking about the incident, and he expressed how helpless he felt. He had his son in the car with him, and the police were telling a three- year-old, "Don't worry, you are with the good guys now." Because the computer showed "T" had a suspended license (which he did not). What do you say to someone in that situation to make him believe in the justice system? The answer is nothing. All I can I say is the police man be the "law on the side road" and you cannot win an argument with them there, but in the courtroom, the gloves come off and it is different. In the courtroom, we still have a fighting chance.

For centuries, rational people have questioned authority, whether religious or secular. People fought and died for what they believed was right. Of course, it can be inconvenient -- if not dangerous -- to push too hard. As criminal defense attorneys, we question the authority of the police, the government in all its guises, the prosecutors and the judge constantly. It is not easy. Sometimes we look at the State and think, "It must be nice to always have power on your side." But we do what we do because the conveyor belt must be stopped; Justice is not subject to the Industrial Revolution , and the machine cannot be allowed to grind over us. When the system is incompetent or corrupt, we must refuse to shrug and say, "It is what it is."

I gave this article to two other attorneys to read, both of whom I love dearly, and they thought I was advocating revolution. One warned me that what I wrote would be forever available ("What we do in life echoes in eternity") and I should be careful lest prosecutors misunderstand me; they cautioned me to moderate what I had to say or couch it in terms of famous patriots. Obviously, I love my country, with all its flaws. I have lived in a dozen other countries, so I speak from experience. But I would be remiss to not dare to say the founders of this country understood the inherent threat of power and knew that it took a willingness to risk it all to maintain the freedom and rights we enjoy. We are a stone's throw from losing those liberties promised to us over two hundred years ago. Even in the last ten years, I have seen massive erosion of what I thought were fundamental protections. The degradation will only get worse.

We have a rare opportunity to fight for people who generally cannot protect themselves, even if we do not relish conflict. We can speak for those who lack the skill or ability to do it for themselves. We are brave because our clients demand that we be. We slow the "system" to a crawl so our client is a person, not a number to be processed. Sometimes, usually late at night in quiet honest hours when sleep won't come and I am alone with my thoughts and weaknesses, I think how crazy it is that my clients trust me to stand in front of six strangers and plead their case. I think how overwhelmingly powerful the government is, what it can do to any one person. But I think of all those lawyers out there who have beaten the government and won massive trials against the odds; then, I remember what is possible if only people are willing to stand and speak up.

To protect the least of us, you must risk yourself. As criminal defense attorneys, we must be willing to (metaphorically) punch the bully in the nose, even if we end up getting hurt too. Even if we are scared, we have to act anyway. Courage is not the absence of fear; it is action in spite of fear. Whenever I get ready to go to trial, of course I am scared - scared "I will lose," scared I will somehow be "exposed" as lacking in some regard, scared of what will happen to my client. I am scared right up until my client is actually out of the courthouse itself. As trial attorneys, we cannot let fear hold us back. We have to put it on the line, time after time. My mother was right - even if I lose a trial, if I fight hard, "they" will think twice about confronting me the next time. And so, every time, despite those fears, I rise and address the jury. And when I do, I am following in a tradition hundreds of years old. When we speak and advocate for our imperfect clients, we speak and advocate for everyone. Through us flow the thoughts, words, and courage of every brave lawyer who went before us.

My clients are not all innocent. Many of my clients are unpleasant people. Some are outright terrifying. But somehow I see redemption even in those people -- not that I will change them -- only that if the system works for them, then the judicial system will function as it was intended.

That is why I do what I do. I will speak for those who cannot speak for themselves, and I will stand for those who cannot stand on their own. I stand not only for the innocent, but for the flawed, the guilty, and for every one of us. I stand because I choose to join a long line of men and women who dare to question authority.

About the Author:

Aaron Delgado.jpgAaron D. Delgado no longer wears nerdy glasses because he had LASIK. He wanted to be a lawyer since the second grade when he decided he would take over his uncle's firm and make his uncle work in the basement. That has not happened...yet. He graduated cum laude from UF Law in 2004 after attending New College of Florida. He is the managing partner of Delgado & Romanik, PLC., in Daytona Beach Florida, and is the 2014 President of the Volusia Chapter of The Florida Association of Criminal Defense Attorneys following a bloodless coup d'etat (all smotherings). He has paid for lots of things to hang on his wall (AV Ratings & Super Lawyer Rising Stars) but he is really proud to be an internationally ranked black belt in Brazilian Jiu Jitsu and 1-0 in his amateur mixed martial art career. He lives with his beloved and their three dogs. His mother is very proud of her influence in this article. His dad is just glad he didn't go broke opening his own Firm.

[1] As a general rule, I prefer my clients not wear their Scarface tee shirts to court proceedings unless they're necessary to cover the gold pot-leaf medallions.

[2] It may be that my parents' decision to make me wear "rec specs" (see attached exhibit "a") caused this.

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