The Federal Defender Office Continues Operations During The Covid Pandemic

By Nell Brown

The Office of the Federal Public Defender kicked off teleworking on March 12 with our first ever 4 pm all-office conference call and the signing of telework agreements for our personnel files. Far from time off, the Federal Public Defender staff has worked long hours during the pandemic, tackling new work such as advocating for vulnerable clients in potential prison hot spots while maintaining normalcy in workflow as much as possible and keeping our staff safe.

For two months, we have maintained a stellar skeleton crew of just a few employees in the office to staff the phones and work with the court on daily business. All other employees must telework, sternly banned from the office to minimize the spread of the virus. We have carried on with business as usual for our habeas corpus and appellate work, although the Supreme Court’s April 2020 decision in Ramos v. Louisiana disallowing non-unanimous jury verdicts and the inevitable related litigation has added to that work. But a great deal of staff and resources have been deployed to deal with new issues arising out of the pandemic and the work-from-home transition.

Various WFH (work from home) offices for members of the Federal Defenders Office. Photo courtesy of Nell Brown.

We have innovated and adapted while social distancing. Rather than holding an office breakfast, we celebrated Administrative Assistants Day with grub-hub gift cards. We’ve collaborated, particularly with the jails, the Bureau of Prisons, the U.S. Marshal Service, and the Court to be able to conduct our work to allow essential court functions to continue. We’ve gone high tech, finally, with new iPhones (rather than having to use our personal mobiles) and office iPads to facilitate remote communication with clients in the U.S. Marshal Lockup. Social distancing has perhaps most directly impacted our staff investigators, who have been unable to conduct in-person interviews for two months, but in new, dark economic times, they have been engaged in connecting clients with needed resources to maintain stability in their lives.

Those of us teleworking have invited our colleagues and sometimes our clients virtually into our homes and makeshift workspaces, learning to Skype and Zoom over choruses of barking dogs and with photobombing children in the background. We work around cats who insist on sitting on the paperwork we are most interested in reading. We’ve seen the introverts happily hunker down and work in their pajamas for twelve hours straight while extroverts long for more human interaction but make do with daily zoom calls. We continue to adapt to this new virtual normal.

Here are a few haikus from staff

From Chief Paralegal Kip Manley:
The screen’s flat; we long
For a day again when we
can speak eye-to-eye.


Two from Investigator Deborah King:
Suitcase meant for trips
now holds my client files.
Back to the beach one day

Now my client knows
all the things my closet holds
since we met on screen



%d bloggers like this: