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The Unofficial 4th Branch of Government

After 40 Years of Practicing Law, Michael Pancer Has Not Forgotten Why he Became an Attorney.

Motivated by Injustice

The Vietnam War was a catalyst for social change and political unrest. Coupled with the Civil Rights movement, The United States was a country divided. Frightened by the threat of Communism, there were those who believed the government was doing the right thing by going to war. The detractors viewed the government as the biggest threat to American citizens. Michael Pancer was of the latter school.

Raised in Pittsburgh, PA, with roots in a working class family, Michael’s background and philosophy makes him sympathetic to the underdog. When asked what made him decide to become an attorney, Pancer says, “It was the atrocities of the Vietnam War and the abuse of the civil rights of African Americans highlighted by the Civil Rights movement. I became active with various protest groups and civil rights groups. The government continued to practice Jim Crow laws. What I learned during this time and these experiences created a great distrust of government, so I wanted to be able to represent citizens accused.”

He and his friends were concerned

about being drafted and watched news reports in horror, as thousands of Americans and Vietnamese were killed in Vietnam. “Here’s the thing,” Pancer continues, “I knew this war was being waged for no valid reason. The Secretary of Defense, Robert McNamara eventually admitted the war was a mistake and the public was lied to.  But the United States government was selling this war. I really felt we needed more protection from the government than we did from any individual out there on the streets. Even serial killers do not produce that kind of large scale massacre.” Becoming a criminal defense lawyer was Pancer’s way of standing up to the government, defending the accused and protecting the rights afforded citizens by the Constitution.

Sentencing Laws

Graduating from UCLA Law School in 1968, Pancer began defending draft resistors in 1969 and his office never lost a draft case. In 1972, he began specializing in defending citizens accused of crimes. He obtained a Criminal Law Specialist certification in 1977. The Law Offices of Michael Pancer have been successfully operating for 40 years and, during that time, he has seen a tremendous shift in the legal system when it comes to sentencing laws. “The most serious issues right now are sentencing laws,” said Pancer.  “Sentencing laws are more draconian. Sentencing has become more of a political issue and that’s dangerous because the politicians take discretion from the judges.”

Federal mandatory minimums, created by Congress 25 years ago, require harsh sentences for nonviolent offenders. Such laws do a disservice to the people accused of crimes, to the judges who lose discretion, to communities that are largely poor, and to a society that spends millions of dollars to keep people incarcerated.

These laws have inappropriately shifted sentencing authority to prosecutors through their charging decisions. They impede judges from considering mitigating factors that would help impose fair and just sentences. They essentially strip away the discretion that judges traditionally employ in sentencing drug offenders, particularly low-level offenders.

“Congress panders to special interest groups, which affects the legal system and the rights of citizens. A number of crimes have become hot button political issues,” says Pancer.  In his experience as a criminal attorney,   drug cases are the most prominent types of cases in which politics play a role. He continues, “People are getting years in prison for possession of marijuana. Anytime they take discretion away from the judge and give it to the Department of Justice, it bodes ill for our citizens.”

When it comes to mandatory sentencing, Pancer argues that another downside for clients and attorneys is that it can discourage trying cases that should be tried. “In more than one case, I felt I could have defended my client in trial, but the government - but charging a harsh mandatory minimum sentence made the risks too great. It is not unusual for a citizen accused to find themselves facing a relatively short sentence if they plea bargain but 15 years in custody if they do not.”

Defending Colleagues; a New Trend

For the past six years, attorneys have comprised the majority of Pancer’s client base. “Maybe it’s just a coincidence, but over half of my clients are other attorneys,” says Pancer. Most of the accused are charged with white-collar crimes: embezzlement, mortgage and or insurance fraud. In one high profile case, Lori Chapin, attorney for the City of San Diego’s Retirement Board, was accused of illegally increasing pension benefits for city officials. Pancer prevailed for his client and the charges were eventually dropped.

Service Is Its Own Reward

Pancer remains dedicated to the idea that citizens need protection by the press and the bar from the overreaching tentacles of the government. One way he embodies this belief is through teaching. Nearly every summer for the last 25 years, Pancer has taught at the National College for Criminal Defense in Macon, GA. The National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers sponsors the college. “The students and faculty are truly dedicated. You would have to be in order to spend two weeks of the summer in one of the most humid places in the country,” Pancer says. He teaches a class geared solely towards how to try a criminal case, which is something attorneys do not learn in law school.  Students are taught how to interview clients, how to choose jurors and how to construct a compelling closing argument. Actors play the role of the client and all of the lawyers who teach volunteer their time and pay their own expenses. “We have some of the most recognized criminal defense lawyers in the country teaching at the college. When you spend a week or two with young, enthusiastic people who are ready to try cases, the enthusiasm rubs off. It is such a rewarding experience,” says Pancer.

Keeping in Balance

While maintaining a steady legal practice, Michael keeps his life in balance with a little surfing, skiing and some reading. He is married to an intellectual property litigator, Juanita Brooks , who he says has taught him  more about how to try a case than anyone else. He  has a son who is an attorney and two step children. Pancer is a Certified Specialist in Criminal Law with the State Bar of California Board of Legal Specialization. He is also a member of the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers, as well as the American Board of Criminal Lawyers, California Attorneys for Criminal Justice, San Diego County Bar Association, and the Criminal Defense Lawyers Club of San Diego. The awards he has receive: San Diego Criminal Defense Bar Association Trial Lawyer of the Year in 2002 and 2006. He speaks at programs for the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers and the California Attorneys for Criminal Justice.

Bridget Brookman

Bridget Brookman is a Staff Writer for Attorney Journal

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About the Author: Bridget Brookman is a Staff Writer for Attorney Journal

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