In one season, Bay Area families are seeing three prominent leaders of legal institutions that have fought for, and in some cases, created, protections for low-income and marginalized communities, leave their posts. Mary Greenwood, the Santa Clara County Public Defender, and Miguel Marquez, the Santa Clara County County Counsel, have been appointed by Governor Brown to move on judgeship. Michael Kresser, the Executive Director of the Sixth District Appellate Project, is retiring after helping start the non-profit in 1985. While the three led distinctively different agencies, each were able to advance the rights of indigent and marginalized communities through their willingness to listen to, and work with, the communities they served. Through their collective leadership, Santa Clara County expanded its indigent defense, held prosecutorial misconduct in check, and created nationally recognized policy protections for immigrants.
Certainly, as new leadership is developed at each respective legal agency, a continuance of this inclusive, community-partnering approach is vital to continue the legacy laid-down by Greenwood, Marquez, and Kresser.
Greenwood Expands Defense Protections
The head of the Santa Clara County Public Defender’s Office is arguable the most important, yet least talked about, criminal justice title in the region. The majority of people charged with a crime are represented by a publicly appointed attorney – mostly by the Public Defender’s Office. Their approach to criminal defense, to challenging the prosecution on behalf of their clients, sets the tone for the criminal court system. After taking the reigns in 2005, Greenwood was able to advance the constitutional rights of indigent clients by ensuring them access to attorneys in misdemeanor cases. After hearing from community members on the impact of the lack of representation at misdemeanor arraignments – the first court hearing where people hear their charges – Greenwood lobbied the Board of Supervisors to provide the needed resources to make sure the courts were staffed with defense attorneys. Until that point, individuals charged with misdemeanor offenses in Santa Clara County had no legal counsel at their first court date. Consequently, people were negotiating plea deals directly with the judge without an attorney. Thousands took guilty pleas without full knowledge of the law, nor an understanding of the consequences of their plea.
Freeing the Wrongfully Convicted
Whenever a person in Santa Clara County files a direct appeal, that notice goes to the Sixth District Appellate Project for the assigning of an attorney. That people who feel they were wrongfully convicted due to incompetent defense counsel, or judicial and prosecutorial misconduct, have somewhere to send that notice is due in large part to Michael Kresser. That some of these notices go on to become appellate victories which exonerate the wrongfully convicted is also due to the quality of appellate defense created by the agency Kresser has led over the past 24 years.
While Kresser has had precedent setting court wins including a 1982 decision in which the California Supreme Court ruled part of the death penalty law void for vagueness, and a 2004 decision by that court which threw out a juvenile court finding that a high school student’s poem constituted a criminal threat, he has also been a tireless advocate beyond the confines of legal briefs. He was a major source for several Mercury News exposes, such as the Tainted Trials Stolen Justice, and also served as a personal touchstone for families who had loved ones just starting the appellate process. Despite his overwhelming schedule, Kresser would make himself available for families to help them understand the appellate process and provide them with personal support, which brought a sense of hope in an otherwise dark moment in their lives.
Leading the Nation in Legal Protections for Immigrants
Santa Clara County now boasts the strongest protections in the nation for immigrants who end up in contact with the criminal justice system. That victory was won through the combined efforts of Board of Supervisor George Shirakawa, community organizations such as SIREN, ALA, and De-Bug through a coalition called the Forum for Immigrant Rights and Empowerment (FIRE), and the legal work of the County Counsel Miguel Marquez.
Two years ago, in response to a highly controversial Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) program that swept through counties and states called Secure Communities (SCOMM), Santa Clara become a pioneer in protecting immigrants and the integrity of local criminal justice systems by taking a stand against the program. SCOMM erodes the wall of separation from local jails and federal immigrant enforcement agencies by automatically sending biometric information of those fingerprinted upon arrest to ICE. The program wreaked havoc in counties, particularly in immigrant communities who consequently became less trusting of working and communicating with local law enforcement as a result.
Santa Clara County was one of the first counties in the country that attempted to “opt-out” of the program, an option initially offered by ICE, which stated the program was voluntary. After being tested by Santa Clara County’s decision, ICE backtracked on its original statement, and then claimed that counties could not opt out of the program. The expose of ICE’s deception was made public through the communications of Marquez to ICE officials, as he advocated for Santa Clara County’s right to determine its own criminal justice protocol. In October of 2011, Santa Clara County took matters into its own hands, and created an immigration detainer policy that in effect stopped the county jail from responding to ICE detainer requests.
The legal strategies and collaborations built with community allies developed by Marquez have been used by county counsels’ across the country who are looking to protect their immigrant communities from the fallout of SCOMM.
Without a doubt there are families in the Bay Area who are together today – protected from an otherwise certain deportation, free from the burden of a plea they would later regret, and exonerated from a wrongful conviction due to Marquez, Kresser, and Greenwood. While their legal acumen arrived them at the helm of their agencies, it has been their ability to go beyond the case files, and build with the community, that allowed them to bring those agencies to places that directly assisted those who called upon their leadership.