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Tom Karas Indigent Defense Award

Arizona Attorneys for Criminal Justice has created an award to honor lawyers who have made an outstanding contribution to the defense of the indigent. The award, named in honor of the late Phoenix lawyer Tom Karas, a pioneer in indigent defense, is expected to be presented for the first time at the annual Winter Seminar in Prescott on January 21, 2006.

Tom KarasTom Karas

Tom Karas, the son of immigrant parents, was raised in Chicago. After graduation from law school at Duke University in 1960, he came to Arizona and worked for two years in the Maricopa County Attorney’s Office. In 1963 he became an Assistant United States Attorney and was made Chief of the Criminal Division.

Until the passage of the Criminal Justice Act, federal indigent defendants were represented by lawyers appointed to serve without compensation. In 1965, operating under a Ford Foundation grant, Tom opened the Office of Federal Criminal Defense, one of five pilot projects set up around the nation. “It was a one-room, one-secretary operation,” said Tom O’Toole, Judge of the Maricopa County Superior Court, who joined Karas in 1967 and succeeded him as Federal Defender in 1976.

It was during this period that Karas decided that his office would not represent “snitches”, defendants who testified or provided information against others in exchange for leniency. Private lawyers would be appointed for them. This was a practical rather than a moral decision. “The guys we represent already see us as part of the government, and are too ready to think we’re in collusion with the prosecutors,” he told me in 1971. “If word got around out there (FDC, Florence) that we were snitching people off, they’d never trust us.”

There was never any question of collusion with the prosecution when Tom or his staff were involved. They drew every case through a fine straw. His insistence on thorough investigation, preparation and more preparation was his hallmark throughout his career. He was a “hands-on” supervisor. As Federal Defender he knew every case in the office inside and out.

The Consummate Defense Lawyer

Karas was also the consummate defense lawyer. In an article for Arizona Attorney last year, Tom Kleinschmidt, a former Assistant Federal Defender under Karas, and Terry McGillicuddy, a long-time friend, wrote,” His understanding of human nature served his clients well. Tom understood motives like fear, greed, lust, pride and love. He knew that mendacity could surface anywhere in the justice system, tainting everything. He fought it where he found it.”

The pilot defender programs were a huge success, and in 1970 the Criminal Justice Act was amended to establish permanent government-funded offices. The following year, Tom was appointed the first Federal Defender (as the position was then called) in the country. “When the Federal Defender’s Office was created, we had grant money left over,” O’Toole said. “Karas had to fight with the Ford Foundation to take it back. They didn’t know what to do with it.”

Tom suffered horribly from a deteriorating hip joint in those years. He walked with a pronounced limp, and often had to use a cane, but he never complained. He would wave off solicitous remarks when someone saw him wince with pain. In fact, he would react with self-deprecating humor when it was suggested that the limp worsened whenever he sensed the presence of a juror. When he finally had hip replacement surgery he would, at the slightest provocation, extol the virtues of “the best orthopedic surgeon in the country” and, without any provocation at all, insist on telling you how many bricks he had laid the previous day in the patio he now had the freedom to build.

Other than that, it was nearly impossible to get him to talk about himself. “I had a lot of laughs sitting on bar stools trying unsuccessfully to cross-examine him about his circumstances,” said Bruce Feder, former AACJ President. “There was no better company over a glass of Chivas.”

Karas insisted that the lawyers on his staff not be regarded as the stepchildren of the criminal justice system. From the outset he fought successfully to ensure that they were compensated on a par with the lawyers in the United States Attorney’s Office. He had credibility before the bench and he saw to it that no defendant ever suffered due to lack of resources.

As the caseload and his staff in Phoenix and Tucson grew, so did the administrative burden of his office and Tom got to spend less time in the forum in which he was so remarkably proficient, the courtroom. He left for private practice in 1976. He continued to work to improve the practice of criminal law and the criminal justice system. He was Chairman of the National College for Criminal Defense in Houston from 1975 to 1977, Chairman of the Criminal Justice Section of the American Bar Association in 1978, a member of the Board of Governors of the State Bar of Arizona from 1980 and the first criminal practitioner to become President of the State Bar in 1989-1990. In 1989 he was appointed to the Advisory Commission on Federal Criminal Rules of the Judicial Conference of the United States. He was also a Fellow of the American College of Trial Lawyers.

A Hero and Mentor

Despite his full schedule, Tom always made time to help colleagues in need of advice. “When you asked him for advice, he ended up knowing your case better than you knew your case,” recalled Feder. “Tom was a hero and mentor to me. He was that rare individual who was respected, feared and liked by everyone.”

As State Bar President Tom continued to work on behalf of the poor as an ardent supporter of pro bono legal services. He also used that platform to condemn mandatory sentencing as an infringement of the right to trial by jury, and the courts’ infatuation with speedy case processing. “A ‘rocket docket’ results in ‘go-go’ justice,’ and ‘go-go’ justice results in little or no justice,” because it prevents adequate preparation, he told Arizona Attorney upon his assumption of office. “Who will suffer most?” he asked in a President’s Page column. “The poor. The minorities. They almost always do.”

Tom Karas eventually and gradually retired to a modest home in Coronado. He died on February 9, 2004.

“I am proud to be a lawyer,” Tom wrote in 1989. “Our profession makes the Constitution breathe; we make it live; we make due process, equal protection and ‘liberty and justice for all’ real.”

In 1991 Tom received AACJ’s own John J. Flynn Lifetime Achievement Award. AACJ is proud to create now the Tom Karas Indigent Defense Award in his memory.

– Joe Keilp


Arizona Attorneys for Criminal Justice
P.O. Box 41213, Phoenix, AZ 85080-1213
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