woman smiling.

Equal access to justice, case by case

It used to be, says Marianne Mariano ’94, Western New York’s federal public defender, that the prosecutors’ disclosure in a case would fit in a single manila envelope. “Now it takes hard drive or virtual platform. There’s no simple case anymore."

That means specialists in her office need to look at cell site data, data from an individual’s phone, files from a seized computer. It’s a wealth of information, but there’s typically a lot to sift through. 

That’s just one of the myriad challenges in providing what Mariano calls “the gold standard of representation” to their clients, indigent criminal defendants charged under federal law. That’s a standard she has pursued since joining the office as an assistant federal public defender in 1995, and as head of the office since 2008. Mariano leads a staff of 32 people split between Buffalo and Rochester, including 16 attorneys as well as administrators, investigators, legal assistants, and IT and forensic analysists. 

She still handles some appeals herself—“things I can work on at night and on weekends,” she says—and argues them before the Second Circuit Court of Appeals. 

But managing such a complex operation is all-involving, and that’s particularly true in times of crisis. Lawyers in her office have praised her handling of the federal budget sequestration of 2013, when the office’s funding faced severe cuts; they got through it without layoffs and with an undiminished caseload. “It was a harrowing time, but she really kept that office together,” says one lawyer. Mariano advocated for the program, as part of a national response that lobbied Congress to preserve their funding. 

The sudden onslaught of the Covid-19 pandemic was another stress test, as the entire staff transitioned to working from home. “We had everybody home and working remotely within three days,” Mariano says. “Our IT staff worked 24/7 to train everyone and get the equipment and programs ordered and installed and deployed. It was a huge learning curve for everybody.

“My goal in managing a crisis, and what I try to communicate to my folks, is that if I have confidence that they’re holding our clients up, I will take care of them and their families. Before Covid, we didn’t have a telework policy and I didn’t think it would work for , but my dedicated staff proved me wrong.”

Naysayers in the public may challenge the use of their tax dollars to fund zealous advocacy for defendants sometimes accused of heinous crimes, but Mariano says she hears that complaint less often these days. “There’s a real sense in our country, from both the political right and left, of the importance of high quality representation to ensure equal access to justice for all.”  

And that sense of fair treatment, she says, is the lodestar of the work they do every day. “Our office is driven by client-centered representation,” Mariano says. “That means every person assigned to us is treated as a person with rights and feelings, and their case is handled individually. 

“My attorneys are so committed to the work we do. Any one of them could go into private practice and do really well, but they are committed to ensuring that every person accused of a federal offense is given the highest quality of representation, regardless of means. My entire staff shares that commitment.” 

Helping to raise the quality of criminal defense litigation in the Western District of New York, is also a priority. Twice a year the Defender’s office hosts a full-day CLE on developments in the law for the criminal defense bar in the district. Mariano has also been tapped to teach on a national level to newly hired assistant federal defenders, helping to bring them up to speed. “They’re new and enthusiastic attorneys,” she says, “and they have great energy and share a commitment to justice.”