Receptionists work behind bulletproof glass and a locked door, but Bob Boruchowitz soon props it ajar long enough for me to enter.
At 55, his black hair, beard and thick eyebrows are flecked with gray, but otherwise he looks much the same as he did in court a decade ago. Then, he was defending Andre Brigham Young, a six-time convicted rapist, against the civil-commitment law designed to protect citizens from sex offenders deemed "predatory." An unpopular defendant vs. a popular law. It was a case of long odds and no payday standard for a public defender.
He has led this, the oldest and largest of the city's four public criminal-defense agencies, for the past 25 years. During those years, he has done as much as anyone in the state to protect the rights of poor people accused of crimes ranging from misdemeanors to murder. He also co-founded the Washington Defender Association, a statewide cooperative of about 800 defenders that has helped establish standards of practice and shape legislation, among other things. After serving 20 one-year terms as its president, he finally stepped down in October.
Last year, while directing an office of 90 attorneys, he took on yet another project. Fulfilling a national fellowship, he tracked cases in which misdemeanor and juvenile defendants appear in court and sometimes plead guilty without being informed of their right to a defense attorney. He didn't just tally numbers. He defended some of the affected clients and put offending courts on notice.
Anne Daly, director of another defense agency, the Society of Counsel Representing Accused Persons, and the state association's new president, sees Boruchowitz as the public defender. "This work can be very frustrating," she says. "People get burned out and leave, but he really did find his calling and purpose in life."
THREE STEPS INTO his office and it's clear that while we are in a downtown high-rise just a few blocks from the courthouse, we are worlds away from the land of law firms furnished on billable hours.
Native American art, including weavings by his longtime mate, Floye Sumida, hangs above his couch. Half of his square coffee table is clear, but the other half is piled with case files. A life-size cardboard cutout of a grinning Roy Rogers stands in front of a bookshelf full of manuals.
In a relatively clear corner, there's an autographed, framed photograph of actor Clayton Moore wearing his Lone Ranger outfit, mask and all. The Lone Ranger, being a cross between law enforcement and vigilante, seems a strange icon for someone who has spent more than half his life defending the accused.
"I can tell you anything you want to know about the Lone Ranger; I even had a Lone Ranger phonograph as a kid," he says with the remnants of a New Jersey accent. "Even then, I connected with the fact he was fighting unfairness and injustice. He was always helping people who were getting framed or swindled. The helpless. I also, on some level, liked it that his partner, Tonto, wasn't white and that they were always saving one another."
This is not just public-defender spin, say those who have worked both with and against him. King County Superior Court Judge Ronald Kessler, a former employee, gave him the Lone Ranger photo and has called him "the last idealist."
Boruchowitz decided early on to interview each finalist for an attorney's job in this office. He tries to learn their problem-solving skills and reviews law-school transcripts, but he's especially keen on finding what in their backgrounds and attitude leads them to public defense.
"I'm always looking for the next star, but also the person who is willing to spend the next 10 years in the trenches," he says. "I look for people who like hard work, understand they can make a difference, not just for the individual but with the system. They have to have commitment, and often they have something in their background that drives it."
HIS BACKGROUND is middle-class New Jersey, loving parents, three younger brothers, a good school and a reverence for baseball. He had a boy's fascination with lawyers, from the book "To Kill a Mockingbird" to the TV show "The Defenders." A notion of the little guy's struggle came from Albert Camus' existential-nightmare tale, "The Plague."
So he joined the Air Force ROTC. He scored highly on the officer's test, but his plan veered off course after he watched a training film that showed the devastation of Napalm bombing. "I'm not sure if they were trying to get us excited or what," he says, "but it became clear to me that dropping Napalm on people wasn't something I was interested in doing."
He dropped out of ROTC and became a conscientious objector. His father wrote a letter of support for him. While Vietnam War protests filled the streets, Boruchowitz took a more cerebral approach. He helped organize teach-ins and letter-writing campaigns.
He started a student journal called "New Spirit" with the intention of energizing the campus. One front-page editorial stated, "The city that surrounds Northwestern is full of corrupt and quasi-legal practices that make a mockery of what we learn here." He also was elected school president.
His first taste of public-defense work came when he was interning at the university's legal-defense clinic and got assigned to work on an assault case, which led to his first trips into a jail and through housing projects.
Those experiences "reinforced to me the dramatic unfairness, the incredible racial disparity," he says. "That has always sort of been accepted. One thing I am trying to do here is make it unaccepted." As time went on, his Jewish father's family history began to resonate even more.
"The older I got and the more I learned about the Holocaust, I got incredibly interested in it," says Boruchowitz. "My grandfather wouldn't buy property because he was sure he was going to have to flee at some moment, someone will chase you out . . . and they did."
BORUCHOWITZ CHOSE Seattle because Sumida did. She got a job here as a lawyer with the Environmental Protection Agency.
When he was hired at the defender association in 1974, a career public defender was a rarity. Public defense was just a stepping stone to private practice.
Just four years later, and to the surprise of many, he was named director of the office. He immediately set about trying to make it a calling rather than a training ground. He expanded recruiting to East Coast universities and strengthened the intern program. He worked to limit felony caseloads, get his attorneys comparable pay to deputy prosecutors and lobbied for a louder defense voice within the system.
Today, 39 percent of his agency's attorneys have been there a decade or more. Women outnumber men and occupy most of the leadership positions; minorities make up almost 20 percent.
Federal prosecutor Mike Lang spent several years in the King County Prosecutor's Office, opposed Boruchowitz in the Andre Young case and went up against several of his staff attorneys.
"In all the places I've ever worked in, the leader sets the tone for the organization," Lang says. "He clearly sets the tone for his. They are aggressive, true believers or whatever you want to call it. The type of person he wants doesn't back down. I respect him, but sometimes a more reasonable approach can be more successful, what I call the (King County Prosecutor) Norm Maleng school of practice."
Boruchowitz says his attorneys are trained to treat each case as if the clients were paying. By capping the felony caseload at 150 a year, attorneys have time to take a dozen or more of them to trial.
For the past two decades, 10 percent of felony cases filed in King County each year go to trial. That may not sound like much, but it's one of the highest rates in the country. Some other major cities have trial rates of 2 percent. The high rate, says Dan Satterberg, chief of staff for the Prosecutor's Office, indicates a healthy system because defenders have enough time and money to investigate cases and go to trial if necessary.
Trials and balance do not come cheap, however. The county's Office of Public Defense budgeted $28 million for the four defense agencies this past year and another $3 million for assigned counsel outside those agencies.
The four offices handle the vast majority of felonies as well as drug-diversion, juvenile and dependency hearings. They get most of the life-without-parole cases. Last year, Boruchowitz's agency alone handled about 11,000 cases.
ON A SUNNY FALL afternoon, Boruchowitz is speaking in a small conference room at the Seattle Westin Hotel. As part of the National Legal Aid & Defender Association's annual convention, he's giving a talk: "How Defenders Can Address the Systemic Failure to Provide Lawyers in Misdemeanor Cases."
This is dry stuff compared to the celebrity justice and the talking-heads trial handicapping that fill cable news, but it has consumed much of his life the past year. He says thousands of municipal-court defendants across the country face charges and sometimes plead guilty each year without properly being informed of their right to a lawyer.
Instead of recounting raw numbers, he peppers his talk with tales of egregious violations, sending defender heads bobbing in agreement.
While trial attorneys get ink, Boruchowitz's focus on the system gives him a network. He is a task-force member of the state Minority and Justice Commission. Through the Racial Disparity Project, he worked to help people, generally poor, get more chances to pay fines for driving with suspended licenses. The diversion program, he says, saves about $300,000 a year in defense costs alone.
About a year ago he joined an eclectic alliance with Seattle Police Chief Gil Kerlikowske, Maleng, Kessler and Jackie McMurtrie of the Innocence Project Northwest to develop procedures designed to help avoid wrongful convictions.
In fact, he and Maleng, first elected the year Boruchowitz was named director, have become unlikely friends. The relationship surprises both prosecutors and defenders, almost as much as his short stint with the U.S. Attorney's Office early in his career or his military aspirations in college.
In his office, Maleng keeps a photograph of himself, Boruchowitz and Boruchowitz's father, who died recently, enjoying spring training.
"Our job is not to just win cases; it's to do justice," Maleng says. "Bob feels the same way. He's principled. So while we have very different views on a lot of issues, we're both guided by the same thing and can work together."
There is no clearer example of their different views than the landmark civil-commitment law. Maleng champions it, maintaining that it is sparingly applied and protects the public from the worst of the worst. To Boruchowitz, it is a Kafkaesque exception to the Constitution.
Young had already served his sentence when King County prosecutors used the law to have him incarcerated indefinitely until he successfully completed deviancy treatment. He's still in prison. Boruchowitz spent a decade on the case before arguing it in front of the U.S. Supreme Court. His parents, friends, co-workers and mate watched. It was the highlight of his career but the justices ultimately upheld the law, to the relief of citizens across the country.
He's long since moved on to the more mundane: supervising his attorneys, monitoring district courts, negotiating contracts. Like defenders across the country, he stews over signs that the so-called war on terrorism is riding roughshod over due-process rights. After three decades in the trenches, he still believes the same rights that protect the poor and unpopular might come in handy for everybody else some day.
Richard Seven is a Pacific Northwest magazine staff writer. Steve Ringman is a Seattle Times staff photographer.
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