When I walk into Christopher Middleton’s office, I think for a minute that the lawyer still hasn’t unpacked. Middleton is Chatham County’s assistant public defender.
It’s been two years since his office moved to a new building. And his workplace still has that “newly moved in” look of bare walls.
No degrees, no honors, no football trophies, no pictures of smiling politicians greet you. What gives? Is his personality hiding in a box somewhere?
“When I walk into this office, it’s about he client,” he says of his intentionally impersonal decor. “Every time I come through that door, I come through the door to work.”
I can’t imagine a workplace without personal tchotchkes. But I also can’t imagine the kind of work that Middleton does. He works in the public defender’s major crimes unit.
To put it bluntly, he defends accused rapists, armed robbers, child molesters and drug traffickers. Anyone who could serve a life term, if proven guilty. He’s on their side.
“I feel that it’s a great honor to represent a citizen and protect those rights embodied in the United States constitution,” he says. “There’s no higher privilege.”
Of course, all accused criminals have the right to a lawyer, regardless of income. The U.S. Supreme Court acknowledged this in the 1963 case of Gideon vs. Wainwright.
Living up to that decision, however, like a lot of other promises made during that era, has remained a constant battle. Many see Gideon as a frontline in the struggle for civil rights.
“I love to champion the underdog,” Middleton says. “Just because you’re considered indigent, you shouldn’t receive less than quality, less than stellar legal representation.”
Okay, we get that. But who goes into a career knowing that he or she will work just as hard but be paid less than others in the room? A happy person, judging by Middleton.
Public defense is a calling. And in Middleton’s case, it extends a deep community service ethic. He volunteers for more than a half-dozen groups, including Citizens Advocacy and AWOL.
The State Bar of Georgia this year gave Middleton its annual Justice Robert Benham Award, a recognition for community service. He got this way of being from growing up here in Savannah.
Savannah State University humanities professor Charles Elmore encouraged his passion for communicating. Mayor Floyd Adams, Jr., who hired him as speechwriter, encouraged his passion for the common man. And Tigers football coach Steven Wilks encouraged his doggedness.
“As a former athlete, I was thinking maybe sports law or entertainment law,” he says of his choices after graduating Vermont Law School in 2007. “But when I interned for the public defender’s office in Berkeley County, S.C., I began to quickly realize that I love being in the fight.”
It’s only after I record this story, talk about some of his office’s initiatives under chief public defender Michael Edwards and start to pack my recording gear when I notice the only personal item in his office – a chess set. He’s a passionate chess player.
“It teaches you strategy,” he says. “It teaches you patience. It teaches you to set goals, to have a clear goal in mind. It teaches you how to adjust.”
No points for guessing his favorite pieces.
“Some people may look at the pawns as getting in the way of whatever the objective may be, the queen reaching the other side or capturing another piece,” Middleton says. “When placed and utilized properly, the pawn can be a very powerful piece on the board. I’ve played games in which it’s come down to my pawns.”
It’s an apt metaphor. Young men, not placed and utilized properly by parents and society from an early age, often end up staring at bare walls for a long time.