Becoming a lawyer wasn’t on Mary Moriarty’s radar in college. She briefly considered being a journalist. And she sang in a choir, which made her think about learning music theory.
Moriarty ended up with a double major in political science and history, wondering what she would do with the rest of her life. So why not take the Law School Admission Test? Bingo.
After graduation, she decided to be a public defender because, she says, she wanted to defend people’s rights and give them the voice that often can be drowned out in the complex criminal justice system. Now, 25 years later, she has been selected as Hennepin County’s first female chief public defender.
“It’s a tremendous honor being the first, and it’s very humbling,” Moriarty said. “This office has had a tradition of really fantastic trial lawyers who just happen to be women. They paved the way for me.”
Her exposure to the law started when she was growing up in New Ulm, Minn. Her father, Patrick, was a public defender, and he was recognized in 1996 for his service with the Durfee Award, bestowed for distinguished career service by the state Board of Public Defense.
Moriarty, 50, is no slouch herself. Her first felony evidence suppression hearing was challenged and affirmed by the U.S. Supreme Court. She also handled the state’s first court challenge of the admissibility of fingerprints.
Her interest in forensic science led to her work as a faculty member this summer in the first forensic college for public defenders, which was founded by renowned attorney Barry Scheck, director of the Innocence Project. She is a frequent presenter and trainer at public defender conferences, and at law schools and legal centers.
Moriarty also takes great pride in Gideon’s Promise, a program which focuses on training for public defenders and building community support in the Southern states. Last year was the 50th anniversary of the Gideon vs. Wainwright decision by the U.S. Supreme Court, which guarantees every defendant will be provided with an attorney in court.
Procuring sufficient staffing and resources is a constant battle in the public defenders’ office, she said. Hennepin County has 140 public defenders, which makes it the largest law firm in the state, she said. The county has recently hired more staff, but it’s never enough.
“Our lawyers really care about their clients, and they struggle with having enough time for their cases,” Moriarty said. “People work nights and weekends. And we talk about balancing life and work.”
Public defenders are starting to recognize the emotional effects of the job, she said. They are like first responders, dealing with crisis and possible life changes of their clients.
“It takes a toll, and if you keep it inside, the stress comes out in bad ways,” she said.
Moriarty recalled one of her toughest cases, a murder in 1996 in which she strongly believed her client was innocent. It was during the time of “Murderapolis,” when the city was dealing with high homicide rates and citizens were fearful of gangs and drugs. His guilty verdict may have been reversed if the trial was held today, she said.
She is stepping into the middle of a four-year term because her predecessor, Bill Ward, became the state’s chief public defender. She has a plateful of challenges, including the creation of pay equity within her office. Funding source changes over the years have put colleagues in very different pay scales, she said.
She said she is a firm believer in training, and will insist that her management team tell her if she proposes a bad idea. She’s a good listener, but decisive as well, she said.
There are still the big-picture issues Moriarty’s office will face, including racial disparities. Too many people are being sent to prison for having a small amount of drugs because they have prior convictions, she said.
To give her legal mind a rest, she enjoys gardening, reading and playing on her pontoon. Is she already thinking about remaining chief public defender in two years?
“Way too early to tell,” she said, laughing.