BY ZACHARY PRICE
Prof. Charles Ogletree ’78 has long served as an inspiration to HLS students interested in public service. He has advised South Africa and China on how best to meet the needs of indigent criminal defendants. And earlier this month, he offered his inspiration and guidance to a new group: Israel’s public defenders.
Five years ago, Israel established its first national public defender’s office. Because Ogletree has served as Deputy Director of the Washington, D.C., public defender’s office and has written extensively on criminal justice, Kenneth Mann, the founder and director of Israel’s new office, invited him to visit Israel and comment on the new program.
Ogletree told the RECORD the trip was “very demanding [but] incredibly rewarding.” During a single hectic week, Ogletree met with Israeli judges, including members of the Supreme Court, as well as prosecutors, prison and corrections officials, defense lawyers, law students and criminal suspects, among others.
He came away im-pressed. “In my view,” Ogletree told the RECORD, “[the Israeli public defender’s office] is one of the most impressive and ambitious offices in the world …. It is an office that carries the dream that Gideon [the US Supreme Court case the established a right to defense counsel] initiated more than 30 years ago, and one of the few in the world that’s been able to put that dream into practice.”
Some of the lawyers Ogletree met were critical of the new program. Criminal defense lawyers complained to him that the public defender’s office “takes too many cases,” prosecutors complained that public defenders “don’t engage in enough plea bargaining,” and judges complained that “public defenders, by pressing clients rights, were causing cases to take longer than the judges would like,” Ogletree said.
“Those are all the signs of a public defender’s office doing its job right, and having other institutional players complain about it,” Ogletree told the RECORD. He said he appreciated the willingness of the Israeli public defender’s office “to be open about the criticisms they have received.” He also said he felt it was “helpful for them and helpful for me to be able to respond to those criticisms.”
The purpose of Ogletree’s visit was to “share [his] perspective on the American system and to critique the Israeli system.” Ogletree noted, however, that American public defender programs may learn from Israel’s experience.
“The Israeli system is clearly a model that we should examine very carefully,” Ogletree told the RECORD. “So far it’s been able to avoid the many pitfalls that are apparent in our system. Lawyers are involved in cases early; they vigorously represent their clients; there is peer pressure to ensure competent representation; they have not at all compromised their commitment to their clients. So it really captures the ideal that Gideon created in the 1960s and has been able to carry it forward.”
Ogletree also said the work of the Israeli public defender’s office was “the most encouraging sign of hopeful, long-term settlement [of Arab-Israeli conflict] that I saw in the course of the visit.”
On the trip, Ogletree met with both Arab-Israeli and Jewish-Israeli lawyers and defendants. “The issues of race and religion were clearly important,” he said. “Generally, in the society, Palestinians wanted to be represented by their own, and so did Jewish defendants.”
“However, remarkably, and I think correctly, the public defender office had developed such a reputation in the communities where there were Israeli Jews and Israeli Arabs that their Israeli Arab lawyers could represent Jewish clients and their Israeli Jewish lawyers could represent Arab clients,” Ogletree said. “I saw the clients looking at the quality of the representation rather than the ethnic origins of the lawyer. For me that was an incredible breakthrough and exemplified the special role that the Israeli public defender office is having in trying to promote peace and a greater form of cooperation throughout the society in Israel.”
Ogletree said he plans to build on the trip in upcoming research and writing projects. Together with Yoav Sapir, an HLS S.J.D. candidate who has worked in Israel’s public defender office, Ogletree is preparing a paper that he said will discuss the successes and challenges of the Israeli public defender system.
Much like their American counterparts, Ogletree said, “[Israeli public defenders] are beginning to feel the pressure of handling more cases than are appropriate for a particular lawyer. They are having to defend their budget with some political entities in Israel who want them to restrict their cost. They are having to take a look at whether they can represent clients who have a great need but also have resources and should hire their own lawyers and not depend on the public defender system for representation. They’re finding a universal concern to get tough on crime without regard for the rights of the criminal.”
“I’m confident that the leadership is aware of those problems and is making the necessary adjustments to respond to those problems,” Ogletree said. Nevertheless, his paper will identify the “warning signs” he saw on his trip.
Ogletree is also preparing a larger project that he said will examine “the availability of legal services in criminal cases in South Africa, China and Israel.”
“I was very involved in helping to set up South Africa’s public defender system in the early 90s and am now advising China on expanding its legal services to indigent clients. Israel sort of completes the triumvirate,” Ogletree told the RECORD. “So I’m looking at those three nations, all of their differences and contradictions, and trying to determine what lessons can be drawn from the American experience, and what lessons we can draw from these unique international experiences of how to handle the concerns of indigent clients in criminal cases.”
Ogletree will begin a sabbatical year in July to focus his attention on the South Africa, China and Israel project.