Improving Public Defense

One of the country’s most respected public defenders will lead a new initiative at Seattle University School of Law aimed at providing better representation for people accused of misdemeanor crimes.

Robert C. Boruchowitz, visiting clinical professor of law and the former longtime director of The Defender Association, will lead the project, which will advance efforts to improve public defense representation for thousands of people in Washington and provide models for application in other states.

The first project of the initiative will be a joint effort with the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers to conduct a comprehensive investigation of misdemeanor public defense in the United States. Boruchowitz will review the structure and effectiveness of defender systems and with NACDL will develop a set of policy recommendations. A report identifying strengths and weaknesses in misdemeanor public defense and incorporating suggested improvements will be completed in August.

“Most people who go to court in this country go for a misdemeanor, and a very large portion of them end up pleading guilty without ever talking to an attorney except the prosecutor,” Boruchowitz said. “This diminishes not only the substance of justice but also the respect for law.”

Two law students are working with Boruchowitz on the project this semester, and he works closely with the law school’s Ronald A. Peterson Law Clinic. Through a combination of public education, research and writing, and strategic litigation, his defender initiative work will focus on reducing excessive defender workloads that threaten the effectiveness of the right to counsel, fostering a commitment to excellence in representation, and ensuring that defender lawyers with adequate resources are available and prepared to help accused persons at every stage of prosecution. The NACDL project also will explore alternatives to traditional prosecution to reduce the number of cases requiring counsel.

“We are so pleased to have Bob working with us. His stellar reputation and life of public service are a great benefit to our students,” Dean Kellye Testy said. “His current project exemplifies his life’s work and fits in perfectly with the law school’s mission of educating outstanding lawyers to be leaders for a just and humane world.”

The law school will co-host with NACDL a national conference in July. The invited attendees will include public defender leaders, misdemeanor defenders, court personnel, judges, bar association representatives, government representatives and prosecutors. A similar conference is planned for New York.

Boruchowitz was director of The Defender Association for 28 years and was president of the Washington Defender Association for 20 years. He served on the executive committee of the American Council of Chief Defenders and on the Board of the National Legal Aid and Defender Association (NLADA). He has participated in NLADA site visits and evaluations of defender programs in Michigan, Nevada, Louisiana, Idaho, and Washington, D.C. He also was a member of an evaluation team for the Spangenberg Group in Los Angeles. He has written about the right to counsel and is a frequent continuing legal education seminar speaker on ethical issues relating to public defense practice.

He was a Soros Senior Fellow in 2003, working on issues of access to counsel in misdemeanor and juvenile cases. He was able to help effect changes in courts in three counties, leading to the provision of counsel at arraignments in misdemeanor courts. At the law school clinic, he has helped to effect a change in one county’s appointment practice that will provide lawyers to approximately 1,000 children a year in truancy contempt cases who under previous practices would not have had counsel.

Last year, Boruchowitz led a committee that drafted a statement on caseloads and workloads for the ACCD. He also received the Champion of Indigent Defense Award from the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers. He has received the Gideon Award from the Washington Defender Association, the William O. Douglas Award from the Washington Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers, the Professionalism Award from the Washington State Bar Association, and the Friend of the Profession Award from the King County Bar Association.

He can be reached at (206) 398.4151 or For more information, contact Katherine Hedland Hansen, director of communications, at (206) 398.4108 or

Seattle University Fountain