Courts

'He Knows Better': Public Defenders Slam Ted Cruz for Saying 'Their Heart Is With the Murderers'

U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz apparently thinks public defenders can empathize with murderers.
U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz apparently thinks public defenders can empathize with murderers. "Ted Cruz" by Gage Skidmore is licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0
Texas Sen. Ted Cruz is a skilled litigator who’s argued with folks as wide-ranging as Pineapple Express actor Seth Rogen and Sesame Street’s Big Bird. But he might have a tougher time debating his latest hot take with the country’s top public defenders.

On Sunday, Cruz appeared on FOX News to discuss the courtroom merits of U.S. Supreme Court nominee Ketanji Brown Jackson. Speaking with host Mark Levin, the Republican senator smeared the judge’s record as a federal public defender.

Cruz first described Jackson as “bright,” “charming” and “affable” before launching into an astonishing diatribe about her purported radical-left agenda and soft spot for hardened criminals.

“There are public defenders, people go and do that because their heart is with criminal defendants,” Cruz said. “Their heart is with the murderers, with the criminals, and that’s who they’re rooting for.”
Many choose a career as prosecutor because they want to put bad guys behind bars, Cruz continued. On the flip side, "public defenders often have a natural inclination in the direction of the criminal,” which Jackson brought with her to the bench, he argued.

Soon, many liberals and legal minds slammed the senator, saying that he understands the law and is likely aware that such remarks were rubbish.

Some even saw Cruz’s statements an affront to American values. People in the U.S. have a right to a public defender, who are court-appointed attorneys provided by the government for those who can’t afford a lawyer.
“The hearts of public defenders are with the Constitution and the rule of law,” said Alex Bunin, chief defender for the Harris County public defender’s office. “The fact that we can see our clients as being more than the worst thing they have done, is not mere sympathy, but it is upholding the legal system this country is based upon.”

Lynn Pride Richardson, chief public defender for Dallas County, similarly scolded her state’s junior senator. “First of all, I disagree with Ted Cruz,” she said. “He’s a lawyer. He knows better.”

Lawyers take an oath that gives them responsibilities to their clients, Richardson continued. Public defenders have an obligation to “leave no stone unturned," just like how it’s a prosecutor’s duty to represent the state.

The job of any defense attorney is to offer effective legal representation to defendants across the board, not just those who are innocent, Richardson said. Starting back with Gideon v. Wainwright in 1963, people facing jail time have been entitled to legal representation. Around two decades later, Strickland v. Washington established that such representation had to be effective.

“Shame on [Cruz] for using provocative language to persuade people in our country who don’t understand the role of public defenders,” said Lori James-Townes, executive director for the National Association for Public Defense.

Based on the Constitution and Gideon, everyone deserves to have representation with an attorney, so it’s “unbelievable” that Cruz would make such a comment, she continued. Public defenders serve an important role in the criminal defense system because while some are born with privilege, others aren’t as lucky.

These attorneys are tasked with understanding the humanity of their clients, but their chosen profession doesn't speak to the content of their character, James-Townes said. Empathizing with marginalized populations doesn’t mean that they don’t respect the law, she argued. Rather, it means the exact opposite.

Sometimes, public defenders represent parents who face losing their children, or even juveniles at risk of getting caught up in the system themselves, James-Townes said. “Not all of our clients are faced with charges such as homicide or murder," she added, "and they’re also deemed innocent until proven guilty.”

(Editor's note: We recommend the movie Gideon's Trumpet, starring the great Henry Fonda, for anyone interested in how Americans gained the guarantee of legal representation in criminal cases. "Anyone" includes Texas' junior senator.)
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Simone Carter, a staff news reporter at the Dallas Observer, graduated from the University of North Texas' Mayborn School of Journalism. Her favorite color is red, but she digs Miles Davis' Kind of Blue.
Contact: Simone Carter