March 18 marked the 57th anniversary of a landmark U.S. Supreme Court decision that greatly expanded the need for one of the most overlooked roles in the criminal justice system.
That position is public defender, which not all jurisdictions had before the Supreme Court ruled in 1963 that the Sixth and 14th Amendments guarantee a right of legal counsel to anyone accused of a crime.
In Monroe County, that often-forgotten job has been held by Arthur Morris since 2016.
Prior to that, Morris volunteered as assistant public defender for 16 years while the partner at his law office, Arlie Traughber, served as public defender.
“We’ve been very fortunate here. We’ve had the opportunity to represent many good people living in the county and establish a successful private law practice, so we decided to give back,” Morris said.
The public defender is appointed by the court to defend those who cannot afford their own legal counsel.
The position is part-time in Monroe County, which is why Morris and Traughber have been able to operate a private practice in Columbia for more than 30 years.
Morris said a typical week sees him spend two days on his public defender responsibilities, but sometimes he can spend part of every day in his role as a public servant.
“It’s a part-time job, but I’m pretty much on call every day,” he explained. “If there’s a need for me to be down at the courthouse, I’m there.”
When Morris gets a call, it could be for a variety of cases.
“It can be anything from a serious traffic charge to a very serious felony charge,” Morris said “We’re also appointed to juvenile cases.”
As the county has grown, Morris said the number of cases he handles has also increased “exponentially.”
When he started serving as assistant public defender, Morris spent only a few hours a week on those cases. Now, as the public defender, he said he usually has 100 pending felony cases at any given time.
“The workload is extremely high. It’s unbelievable,” he said. “It’s almost become a full-time job.”
But the work is made easier by the community Morris works in.
“We’re very fortunate because we don’t have a lot of violent crime in this county, but there’s a lot of drug crime, theft and all those things that are related,” he stressed. “We are right next to a major interstate, so a lot of that is from folks who are from out of our county.”
Morris is also aided by the other people in the criminal justice system in Monroe County like the Monroe County Sheriff’s Department, area police departments and state’s attorney’s office.
“I’m very fortunate that everybody gets along in the various offices because it could be difficult,” Morris said. “Fortunately, everyone understands their jobs and works with each other to make sure everyone’s taken care of properly.”
Morris does that himself, too, as he said he handles his public defender cases and clients the same way he does his private practice obligations.
Although the lack of “terrible” crime in Monroe County makes that easier, Morris said it can still be challenging.
“You have to treat every client the same,” he said. “I’m obligated to represent them zealously, and I do my best to do that. Not everybody could do this job. You have to have some compassion, and I do have compassion for a lot of the folks…Sometimes it’s difficult, but you have to put your personal judgement aside and represent them to the best of your ability.”