New Leader Discusses The Next Era For NY Federal Defenders

By Andrea Keckley | April 4, 2024, 12:54 PM EDT ·

The Federal Defenders of New York has chosen its new leader, elevating its director of strategic litigation to become the first Black woman serving as the federal public defense organization's executive director.

smiling woman headshot

Tamara Giwa

Longtime public defender Tamara Giwa stepped into the role on April 1.

"Over the last week, I've received an outpouring of messages from lawyers all over the country, lawyers I don't even know, telling me what it means for them to see me in this role," she told Law360 Pulse on Wednesday. "And so that's really hit home. It's driven home for me the fact that it's important to have representation."

Giwa succeeds David Patton, who led the Federal Defenders of New York for more than a decade before his move last year to Kaplan Hecker & Fink LLP. Kaplan Hecker continues to collaborate with the organization as they pursue litigation against the Federal Bureau of Prisons over the conditions of confinement at the Metropolitan Detention Center in Brooklyn.

Issues like conditions of confinement and the impact of emerging technologies on the criminal legal system are top of mind for Giwa. She plans to grow the organization and help it rise to these challenges while maintaining her practice as a public defender. Giwa is also continuing to teach as an adjunct professor at New York University School of Law, where she teaches a course on professional responsibility in criminal practice.

Here, Giwa discusses the next era for the Federal Defenders of New York. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

What are your goals for your new position?

We have a single-minded and straightforward mission. And so my primary goal as executive director will always be to ensure that we are upholding that mission and that very important responsibility. But I also have a vision for the growth and the future of the federal defenders, as I'm taking the office into its next era. And the one primary area of focus for me is ensuring that our office meets the challenge of artificial intelligence and big data and emerging technology.

I think it's pretty clear that artificial intelligence is going to shape every aspect of our lives, and we're seeing already that law enforcement is using surveillance tools and forensic tools that incorporate artificial intelligence. And so these are tools that identify targets, that analyze and review data that is collected from people's phones and other devices, tools that engage in predictive policing — and we know that if left unchecked, there's a tremendous potential for a discriminatory impact of these tools.

And we also know that impact is going to be felt most acutely by our clients. And so as executive director, I want to ensure that we are at the forefront of issues related to artificial intelligence and emerging technologies. Our lawyers will be in court challenging the use of these technologies when they harm our clients, and, as we do every single day, we will ensure that the protections that are afforded by the Constitution are safeguarded around these issues. So that's one big, important area of focus for me.

Another is, of course, the conditions of confinement at [MDC Brooklyn] and other [Bureau of Prisons] facilities.

The conditions of confinement at the MDC are really dire, and unfortunately, our office has to continue raising the alarm and speaking out loudly about this. And so I intend to do that as well.

The conditions at the MDC involve poor medical treatment and psychiatric care, extended lockdowns, issues around access to legal visits [and] limited educational and rehabilitative programming.

The lawyers in our office represent about half of the defendants at the MDC, and so every single day, our lawyers, our social workers, our interpreters, our paralegals — they're in the jail meeting with our clients. And the people at the MDC are, for the most part, indigent people who are mostly people of color, who are detained at the jail pretrial, which means these are people who are presumed innocent. And so as executive director, I will continue the fight for more humane conditions at the MDC.

Another area of focus for me is, of course, the [Criminal Justice Act] panels. The Criminal Justice Act sets out the means by which indigent people will be represented in federal court. And so our office represents about half of the indigent people, and then a bar of attorneys on the CJA panel represents approximately the other half.

So, as executive director, I will be the leader of the federal defenders, but I will also work alongside the leadership of the CJA panel. And I'll work to support and advance the panel and continue our office's very strong history of fighting for resources and training for the panel members to ensure that all indigent defendants in our districts — not just the ones represented by federal defenders, but all indigent defendants — continue to have the highest quality of representation.

So those are three areas of focus as I come into the job.

Why was it important to you to maintain your practice as a federal defender as you take on this executive director role?

We're a trial office and so our primary focus and mission is to represent our clients in court and to, as I said, provide the highest quality legal representation. I am a lifelong public defender. I've been practicing for over 16 years. I've always been committed to indigent defense. I've practiced in state court [and] in federal court. I'm a trial lawyer. And I think it's important for the head of our organization to be somebody who has excellent trial skills [and] who's achieved successes in all types of litigation [and] in all types of courts. And so I intend to keep a small caseload and to continue representing the clients. That's what I love to do.

How do you plan to grow the organization as so many public service lawyers struggle to manage student loan debt from attending law school?

It's certainly an issue that is getting a lot of coverage right now, and it's something that our lawyers talk about a lot. And when I meet with young law students, the students that I teach or just young lawyers, the issue of mounting debt is a pressing issue.

Public defenders and public defender offices serve a tremendously important function. And that's a function that's mandated not only by our Constitution, but it's a function that serves the public. And at the Federal Defenders, we take the work of indigent defense very seriously. We care about our clients. We fight aggressively. We work tirelessly and zealously. And in order for us to provide that excellent quality of representation, we have to be able to attract the best talent. We need a bright and hardworking and diverse group of lawyers doing this important work.

It's important that public defender offices are well-resourced, and I intend to continue the fight for resources for our office and for federal defender offices. And it's important that young lawyers who are committed to indigent defense can make the choice to do this important work so that they don't have to choose to go to a law firm in the face of the pressure of repaying their student loans.

--Additional reporting by Anna Sanders and Chart Riggall. Editing by Robert Rudinger.

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