Eileen A. Hirsch vividly recalls the passionate advocacy of litigants before federal Judge James E. Doyle Sr., for whom she clerked immediately after law school. The Youth Policy and Law Center was suing the government on behalf of two children placed in solitary confinement at a girls’ prison.
She realized she would follow a similar path, and that she wanted to represent children.
Not long afterward, she applied with the Center, and worked as a staff attorney for five years.
Hirsch came to the State Public Defender’s Office in 1986, working for a few years as a trial lawyer in the Janesville office, until joining the management team. From 1989 until 1995, she was the deputy public defender. She then joined the Appellate Division and became one of the agency’s four appellate advocates for children.
She has argued countless cases before the Wisconsin Supreme Court, but probably her most consequential high-court victory was In re Jerrell C.J.. The High court ruled that Jerrell’s written confession was involuntary under the totality of the circumstances. He was 14 at the time, had been handcuffed to a wall and left alone for two hours, prior to five and a half hours of questioning without being allowed to call his parents. He then signed a written statement prepared by a detective.
The justices additionally ordered that all future custodial interrogations of juveniles be electronically recorded.
Just about every case Hirsch handles involves tragedy, she concedes. “But with kids, there’s always a little hope that things will get better for them. I get very angry when people see my clients as something ‘other’ than their own kids. Some kids are just lucky enough to have more stable homes and positive influences than others.
“At this agency, we believe in redemption. And public defenders, more than anybody else, believe in the justice system. We believe it works, and by and large it does.”
Still, there’s room for improvement. “Wisconsin is one of a dwindling number of states that still allows 17-year-olds to be tried as adults, as part of a very punitive law passed in 1995.
The racial disparity is terrible: Many more kids of color go to the more punitive options. And we put too many kids in correctional institutions. … But, in Wisconsin, most juveniles are represented by counsel; appeals are available to them; and we have fairly enlightened court systems and professionals who work with kids.”