2014 marks significant milestones for me. May brings the 10-year anniversary of my graduation from law school. By September, I will have been a public defender for 10 years. This decade following law school has been the most challenging of my life. I have grown from an unattached, carefree 24-year-old into a 34-year-old who is married, a mother, and working full time at the public defender’s office.
While I always knew that I wanted to be married and a mother, I didn’t always know that I wanted to be a public defender. I do remember the exact moment I figured it out. It was my first year of law school, and our criminal law class had a speaker who worked in the criminal justice system. I didn’t like the way he was talking about people’s constitutional rights. He was cavalier, and seemed to liken them to inconvenient technicalities. I decided immediately that I would dedicate my life to pushing against that kind of thinking. It is exhausting, frustrating, heartbreaking, challenging, thrilling, and endlessly rewarding, all at the same time.
I became a public defender to stand up for our fellow human beings who have nobody to advocate for them. I believe that everybody, no matter what they’ve been accused of, deserves to have someone stand by their side and tell their story. Several years ago I overheard my mother defending my career choice to someone who held the opinion that “criminals” should all just go to jail. My mother is religious and relatively uneducated about the legal system, so she told the person that the Bible says we’re supposed to help those less fortunate than ourselves. Her perception of what I do has stuck with me because it really is that simple. Helping my partners in the criminal justice system understand that my clients truly are less fortunate is usually my daily goal. It explains why they can’t always make it to court or comply with court-imposed conditions – most don’t have their own car parked in their garage. Most don’t have a permanent home. Sometimes it’s difficult just to scrape together $2 to get on the bus.
Developing empathy for people in these situations is a continuing process for me. I constantly remind myself of the obstacles that my clients face when they do things that irritate me, like blow off office appointments right before serious court hearings. I stop and think about how I got to the office that day. I walked into my garage and got into my reliable vehicle that starts immediately and always has gas in it. I paid cash for my vehicle after law school with my parents’ assistance. I park in a ramp right next to my office that I can afford to pay for on my own because I grew up in a supportive, education-focused family. I am fortunate; my clients are not. I am grateful for every blessing I’ve been given in my life, and I have the privilege of helping those who weren’t so lucky.
Keshini Ratnayake ’04 is an attorney at the Hennepin County Public Defender’s Office.