In the Dec. 15 edition of Alaska Dispatch News, columnist Charles Wohlforth wrote these two sentences in his opinion on the advice given by an attorney employed by the state of Alaska Department of Law: "We have government lawyers who defend hiding the truth from the public -- for whom they work. The Department of Law should work to represent the values of Alaskans, not just win cases." Mr. Wohlforth's comments conflate the concept of the client with that of the paymaster.
The state of Alaska employs lawyers in a number of agencies and departments. The two most visible, and the ones with which the general public is perhaps most familiar, are the Department of Law and the Public Defender Agency. All of the lawyers employed by them (and any other department or agency) are paid from the coffers of the state. The state is their paymaster. But their clients are most often not the state itself, but some component of the state.
For example, the Legislature has attorneys, and they are paid by the state. The Department of Commerce has an assistant attorney general or two assigned to represent and advise them, and those attorneys are paid by the state. But the duty of those assistant attorney generals is NOT to the people of the state of Alaska at large, but rather to their client agency, the Department of Commerce. Thus, the Department of Law assigns its attorneys, all of who are paid from state coffers, to represent the various departments and agencies that need legal advice and representation, and those departments and agencies are the clients of the assigned attorneys.
The most striking example of Mr. Wohlforth's misunderstanding is perhaps the role of the attorneys employed by the Public Defender Agency. They are all paid by the state. Their clients, however, are never the state, but those persons charged with a crime who cannot afford an attorney to represent them. I'm pretty sure Mr. Wohlforth will never suggest that the lawyers in the Public Defender Agency owe a duty to the state, who pays them, or that they are "… hiding the truth from the public — for whom they work."
I'm not defending John Bodick, whom I know and who once had an office just two doors down from mine. But I do object and find repugnant the argument advanced by Mr. Wohlforth that all of the attorneys employed by the state of Alaska owe a duty to the public, when in fact, they owe their duty to their assigned clients. While it is ever a subject of debate whether legal advice is good or bad, moral or immoral, ethical or unethical, it is never a subject of debate that the first duty of a lawyer is to her or his client.
Now retired from the practice of law, Dan Cooper is a former president of the Alaska Bar Association and served as both a state and federal prosecutor. His last trial as a federal prosecutor, U.S. v. Mujahid, was of a federal prisoner held in custody by the Alaska Department of Corrections who was accused and convicted of assaulting state prisoners at the Cook Inlet facility.
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