It started when “James from Webster” called into a WGBH-FM radio show complaining that his criminal defense lawyer hadn’t called him back.
His call so angered Suffolk County District Attorney Rachael Rollins, a guest on the show, that she launched into a tirade against public defenders, labeling them “overwhelmingly privileged.” She said the staff at the Committee for Public Counsel Service claim they are too overworked and busy to return calls from their poor, Black, and brown clients.
“When you hear in my voice my disgust and outrage about CPCS not calling people back — their overwhelmingly privileged staff that aren’t calling back poor, Black, and brown people because they’re saying they’re overworked and busy. It’s my people who are losing no matter what. I’m not going to sit silently on this.”
"I’m not going to let these defendants suffer in silence because their criminal defense lawyers, who are paid by our tax dollars, refuse to answer their calls,” she said.
Her comments, on Boston Public Radio Thursday, touched off a firestorm among defense lawyers, who have been some of her staunchest political supporters.
The CPCS chief counsel, Anthony J. Benedetti, whose group provides lawyers to poor defendants, responded with an angry letter the next day. Her comment, he said, “strikes directly at the heart of our organization.
“These unprovoked attacks on your fellow attorneys did not go unnoticed, and I am afraid you may have alienated some who believed in your campaign promises and then found themselves in the crosshairs of an off the cuff diatribe.”
Rollins was elected in 2018 on a promise of bringing greater equity to the legal process. She called for reduced prosecution of relatively minor offenses and denounced structural racism in the court system, winning admirers among public defenders. But on Jim Braude and Margery Eagan’s show Thursday, she had little but criticism for public defenders’ work.
“There’s this premise out here that somehow people who are public defenders are the heroes and the DA’s are the villains,” she said. “I am not going to allow that to continue any longer.”
“Many of these individuals who are criminal defense lawyers receive their paycheck — if you’re a bar advocate, you get paid every time you show up at court, not based on how you do. . . — on the number of times your body walks into that courtroom,” Rollins said.
She repeated her complaint several times during the 40-minute show, saying that she, too, had tried unsuccessfully to reach someone at CPCS. She urged defendants to call the DA’s office if they were unable to get information on their cases. That suggestion set off a flurry of e-mails to the show from lawyers, Braude said, who pointed out that clients who are represented are not supposed to contact prosecutors directly.
CPCS’s Benedetti was offended by Rollins’ suggestion that defense attorneys “are simply showing up to court to get a paycheck. Nothing could be further from the truth.”
During the radio interview, Rollins, who also said she had advocated for a pay raise for public defenders, also criticized CPCS for a lack of diversity among its lawyers:
"Ask some of the criminal defendants who are incarcerated — is this a rainbow coalition of people who are representing these individuals? I refuse to pretend like this is Thurgood Marshall and Martin Luther King are working for CPCS right now and running this operation.”
Statistics show a tiny percentage of lawyers nationwide are minorities. A CPCS spokesman said 15 percent of its staff attorneys are nonwhite. Rollins’ office refused to provide similar data.
Brian A. Kelley, a former CPCS staff attorney, said he was offended by Rollins’ description of public defenders as “overwhelmingly privileged,” but Kelley believes she was correct in pointing out the defense bar’s lack of diversity.
“CPCS has recognized it and is really trying to cure that problem — and it is a problem,” he said.
If Rollins was stung by any of the criticism, she didn’t show it. When lawyers lashed out on Twitter, she or her staff pushed back.
“Thank you for undermining my work,” tweeted Jim Corbo, a CPCS staff attorney in Brockton. “I thought of your comments all day as I took collect calls from clients in my basement on my cell phone, in between cell calls with clients’ loved ones.”
Rollins shot back: “Right Jim. Because you can speak for all your poor, Black & Brown clients. They don’t need to speak for themselves or have their experiences heard by the NAACP & electeds of color across the state. They have you to save them.”
Another defense lawyer, Michael Tumposky, wrote: “She used her platform to drag out a tired trope about ‘public pretenders’ v paid lawyers, while portraying herself as the sole hero . . . in the fight for marginalized communities. It’s both laughable and incredibly offensive. We aren’t putting folks in jail.”
A Rollins staffer, Bobby Constantino, tweeted right back, suggesting that the critics, “instead of getting defensive . . . white lawyers could use this as a learning opportunity.”
In another tweet, Constantino said “She’s reporting that she has observed, and is constantly being told, that many, many white lawyers who don’t live in the marginalized communities where they handle cases are not acting with a sense of urgency or responsiveness. And the same goes for multiple other state agencies."
A lawyer who helped with Rollins’ own transition team called her comments “tragically uninformed.”
“She lacks a basic understanding of what’s happening. She has a $20 million budget. Most bar advocates make five figures a year,” said Leonard Milligan, who has represented poor defendants for nearly 13 years.
Unlike employees of the DA’s office, bar advocates show up in court every day without health insurance and lack office space and support staff to answer their phones, Milligan said.
Since the coronavirus outbreak, he said, he’s been receiving calls “day and night” on his personal cellphone from prisoners looking to be released.
“Imagine you’re in a Zoom meeting and you’re getting a collect call because they just got out of their cell and they call three times but you can’t answer. And the next day you hear from their parents that they’ve been trying to call,” said Milligan, of the firm Milligan Rona Duran & King.
Obed Effah, a full-time court lawyer who works at Middlesex Juvenile Court, said he was “very offended” by Rollins’ comments, noting that his pay for the work “has not been good. That is not my motivation.”
He said he was disappointed she would “pit the people I represent against me" and leave the impression that public defenders do a poor job.
“We took an oath to defend people at all times, regardless of the color of their skin.”
Rollins’ office did not respond to requests for comment.
Andrea Estes can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.