Spotlight On: Spotlight on: Rick and Chad Catalino

From the June 2024 Criminal Defense Newsletter

Chad, you’re the Chief Public Defender for Allegan and Van Buren Counties. What does your work entail?

The job of the Chief Public Defender is very straightforward. It is my responsibility to ensure that my Support Staff, Staff Attorneys, and Roster Attorneys have the tools and support they need to serve our clients. A Public Defender Office’s main goal should be to provide clients with the best possible representation and service available. While this is easy to articulate, it can be challenging to implement. Those of us who practiced indigent defense prior to the MIDC reformation era will remember how hard it was to get investigative services, expert witness services, training, access to funding, and other support and services for clients. Prior to the MIDC reforms, it was hard to even know who to ask to help us get those needed supports for our clients. Prior to the MIDC reforms, even if you knew who to ask, the people who were in positions to provide financial access to that support often would not authorize that support to defend indigent clients. Now, I am the person who coordinates providing those services for our attorneys so they can provide those items to our clients. It is my responsibility to provide the funding for investigators, expert witnesses, and the training that is needed, but it is also my responsibility to build the networks with those investigators, experts and trainers so that the attorneys can tap into those networks quickly and efficiently for the benefit of our clients.

Additionally, in my view, the Chief Public Defender is also a coach for the young people who are currently providing front line legal and social work services to our clients. The Chief Public Defender, in my view, should be providing the frontline attorneys, social workers and support staff with the ability to lead from their positions. Everyone on my team is encouraged to lead. They are encouraged to present their ideas on how we can provide more exceptional representation for our clients. They are encouraged to try things and fail. As the Chief Public Defender, I encourage an ethically proper risk-taking team culture that will benefit our clients, but then to help each of my team members lead in the implementation of their ideas for the benefit of our clients. This includes coaching as it relates to legal issues, evidence issues, but also tactical and strategic level matters. The young people who are working with today’s clients on the front lines are the future leaders who will be building indigent reforms into the coming years. It is my job to help coach that generation so that they can defend the integrity of this Nation’s legal system far into the future. 

Rick, you’ve been working on appellate cases through MAACS since 1991, and you’ve done a lot of trial work over the years as well. Which type of work do you prefer and why?

My legal career has involved both trial work and appellate work. I have represented indigent and non-indigent persons at both the trial and appellate levels. To this day, I enjoy doing both because each challenges me in different ways. I cannot honestly say that I prefer one over the other,

While I was in law school, I worked as a law student researcher at SADO’s Lansing office under the then-leadership of Marty Tieber and with people like Sheila Robertson Deming, Ronald Bretz, and Fred Bell. These dedicated attorneys taught me skills that I brought into my legal practice when I finished law school. They taught me the importance of pursuing those things that are of importance to the people who are suffering the negative consequences, no matter how small those matters may seem to me. One day improperly incarcerated is one day too many. Appellate successes can be difficult to achieve, but they can be hugely significant to the client. For example, after a hung jury on a second-degree CSC case, the prosecution amended and convicted the defendant at a second trial of first-degree and second-degree CSC. (I was not trial counsel.) On appeal, I was able to have both convictions overturned, and my client went home from prison shortly thereafter. But equally as significant to my client was a recent case I just completed where I was able to get 129 days of jail credit that he was not given at his original sentencing, making him immediately parole eligible.

In another memorable case, my client had been convicted of third-degree CSC and sentenced to 10-15 years. The sentencing guidelines were mandatory at the time. I had a recently published case on all fours about the proper scoring of an OV, establishing that the guidelines had been wrongfully scored. At the trial court hearing, the judge asked me if I had any other cases that followed the published case. I told him there was only one – unpublished – but it was persuasive. He responded “only if I’m persuaded and I’m not. Motion denied.” I went to the Court of Appeals and my client got a resentencing before a different judge: 4 to 15 years, a 6-year reduction on his minimum.

Trial work can be equally as challenging, but equally as rewarding. Two of my most gratifying not guilty jury verdicts were a negligent homicide car crash case and a non-parolable life charge for over 650 grams of cocaine, the latter being one defendant of a 21 person “ring” that led to one dismissal by the government, 19 convictions, and my client’s jury trial acquittal. My appellate work has always helped me in my trial work. I have had to stay current with legal developments and caselaw in ways that have benefited my trial level clients. I believe that my appellate work has taught me the importance of trying to preserve issues for appeal from the trial level. And I am an unwavering proponent of trial preparedness. I do enjoy trial work and the courtroom experience. That is why I elected to do both for most of my career.

The one constant though is that both types of representation must be client centered. 

Chad, did watching your father’s work influence your choice to practice law? What did you learn from watching Rick?

My Dad started law school when I was around ten years old. He went to law school; commuted 2 hours each way; earned amazing grades ultimately graduating 7th in his class and had four kids that he continued to work to support throughout law school. But at night he would study in our living room. I would lay on the floor next to the couch, and he would read torts, criminal law, and constitutional law cases to me as he studied. He would explain criminal law and constitutional law principles to me; explain their origin; explain that there were people out there, like John Adams, who believed in our justice system so much that he defended the British soldiers against criminal charges in the new world, even though John Adams was a founding father. I was inspired. I wanted to be one of those people who was willing to believe in our system so much that I would defend our Nation’s Constitutional principles, even if it was unpopular to do so. I wanted to have an impact on the health of this Nation. I knew that I wanted to be involved in ensuring that democracy survived, and I knew that my calling was to ensure that the Government secured only constitutionally valid convictions by defending those clients who did not have the means to defend themselves. This was a direct result of my Dad taking the time to read me his law school studies. In hindsight, this was one of the most influential moments that led me to the practice of law.

While my Dad inspired me at that very early age to want to practice law, my Dad has continued to teach me valuable lessons as I continue to practice law. My Dad has a New Year tradition. He reads the Michigan Court Rules and the Michigan Rules of Evidence on January 1, New Years Day, from start to finish. He did this when he was a new attorney, he did this when he was a 20-year veteran attorney and has continued this practice even into his really “experienced” years. My Dad has taught me that there is no substitute for studying and preparation. My Dad taught me that appearing in court is the fun part. However, it is the work at your desk, at 5:00 a.m. or 10:00 p.m., the work that no one sees, that sets the really good attorneys apart. Preparation is the unsung attribute of a great lawyer. Preparation is where we develop creative arguments and out lawyer opposing counsel. My Dad taught me that if I continue to prepare like that, throughout my career, then my reputation will build so courts will trust me, as I am always prepared. He reminds me often that this is the reputation that I want throughout my career.

Rick, what have you learned from watching Chad’s work, and practice?

I may sound like a boastful dad, but that is okay because I am a very proud dad. I have seen Chad take on client cases and go to trial, when other attorneys would not do so, and against great odds. He is an outstanding trial attorney, in my opinion, and I have learned from him a number of different and beneficial trial techniques. I have gained new insights into “old law,” and I have learned from his astute analytical skills that he has brought to the courtroom. 

When Chad moved on to become the Chief Public Defender for Allegan and Van Buren Counties, I had the opportunity to see an entirely new dimension of his defense work. Even before arriving as Chief Public Defender, Chad worked tirelessly to help launch holistic defense in the Muskegon County PD’s office where he worked. Chad has educated me in the practice of holistic defense. He is a skillful team-oriented leader, who encourages his staff to function as a team for the benefit of their clients. I have learned from him to draw on other skill sets and disciplines for the benefit of a client. And I admire his passion for holistic criminal defense and his ability to instill that passion in his “team.”

Have you two had the opportunity to work together on any cases? If so, can you tell us about a case and about what it’s like to work together?

While we have spent twenty years “bouncing ideas” off one another – in reality arguing over the rules of evidence while eating crab rangoons – it was not until December 2022 that we had a chance to work a case together. While I (Chad) have significant high level trial experience, including significant homicide trial experience, I had never represented a client in a cold case homicide. Dad had that experience, in fact, even from a recent few in Allegan and Van Buren counties. Thus, when in December 2022 the Court of Appeals sent a cold case arson homicide conviction back to one of my jurisdictions for a new trial (kudos to MAACS roster attorney Mitch Foster), knowing that this case would be a significant amount of work that I did not want to burden my Staff or Roster Attorneys with, I decided to take on it myself. But I recognized that I could benefit from coaching and assistance as I had never before handled a cold case homicide. So, with support from MIDC, my Dad was willing to work with me and coach me on that case.

The case itself was very interesting, arising from a 1992 fire that was not charged until 2016. Fire science is one of those fields that has changed immensely over those 30 years. I think that one of the most interesting things about working that case together was our ability to put into practice, and model to my younger staff, the preparation aspect of client representation. The records were voluminous. Dad convinced me that it would be important to build a team for the case. We immediately placed an investigator, social worker and my Deputy Chief Public Defender, Manda Mitteer, on this case. We immediately set a preparation schedule, and the team began meeting all day every Friday. We held those Friday meetings for about a year and a half. Dad modeled during those meetings what it means to prepare, to really study. He modeled to us the level of individual discipline it takes to conduct litigation tasks on a high-level cold case. He modeled the client centered approach to representation as we held bi-weekly meetings with our client. We drew upon the resources from our trainings, including one put on by the CDRC with Dr. Fenn from Michigan State University. We researched and eventually assembled a team of experts from several different disciplines from across the country. We consulted with those experts throughout our team’s case preparation work. We met with the MAACS attorney and the appellate level investigators to learn case intricacies that we would not have had without their help. Dad’s appellate experience was incredibly valuable in modeling the expanded team approach; the idea that appellate teams and trial teams are not at odds, but rather are working toward the same goal of representing a client to the very best of our abilities. Sometimes, I think we trial level team members think an appellate attorney’s mission is to dig up dirt to show that a trial team was ineffective. Not true. We dispelled that myth in our client-centered focus so we could ethically represent our client to the highest constitutional standard possible.

Despite this true team approach, we were individually rigorous and zealous. We debated (a/k/a “fought”) about high-level evidentiary issues and low-level evidentiary issues. We debated tactics and strategy. We debated who had the final say. We even debated whether we were fighting over these things. But it was more about consensus building trial preparation. Preparation was our universal language; studying was our common denominator. We portioned out the workload to the team, drawing on everyone’s individual strengths. We shared the frustrations and disappointments of preparing highly complex motions and then losing at the hearing. We shared the realizations and stresses inherent in a case whereby one’s client is facing dying in prison. We shared the fatigue associated with this type of case; the recognition that devoting a year and half of one’s life for another human being is both a privilege for a defense lawyer and also an awesome responsibility. Finally, despite the time we and our team dedicated, all the accomplishments and disappointments, we never lost sight that it is the client’s case; the client gets to decide how they want to proceed. That is what excellent client centered representation is all about.

Given this experience, I (Chad) would take on a case with my Dad again without hesitation, should an opportunity ever ethically present itself again. I am truly lucky to have one of my best friends as my Dad and mentor. And I (Rick) am incredibly grateful to have finally worked a case with my son. It is the highlight of my legal career, and I would do it again in a heartbeat if the opportunity ever presents itself.

What significant trends – good or bad – have you noticed in Michigan criminal law, since you each began practicing?

Goodness, there have been many changes since I (Rick) started practicing. One of the most significant to me has been the changes in criminal sentencing law. We have gone through “advisory” judicial sentencing guidelines to “mandatory” legislative sentencing guidelines, which eventually did not fully pass constitutional muster, to once again, pseudo-mandatory “advisory” guidelines. And during this same timeframe, appellate review of sentences has gone from a “shocks the conscience” standard to a reasonable “proportionality” standard.

But there probably has been no more significant change than the statewide funding of indigent defense and creation of MIDC. During my (Rick’s) years of private practice, my “homebase” county of practice was Muskegon County. For years, Michigan’s criminal defense system was underfunded and grossly overburdened. In about 2007, a class action lawsuit was filed on behalf of present and future indigent defendants. The named plaintiffs were from three counties: Berrien, Genesse, and Muskegon. Muskegon’s non-competition contract system had not changed in some 30 years. The shortcomings of the obsolete system were a poster child for the need for reform. Over time, MIDC was created, and the Legislature provided funding. Today, defendants have access to investigative services, expert witnesses, social workers and such simple things as appropriate clothing for trial. And public defenders now have resources for ongoing training and education, and they are paid a living wage. It has become a “whole new world.”

To me (Chad), too, the indigent defense reforms have been one of the most important positive developments in criminal law in Michigan. This Nation has historically valued the idea that an accused’s conviction is legitimized when the government obtains that conviction with constitutionally effective protections in place, through constitutionally effective defense representation. Through these reforms, MIDC has put Standards in place to support attorneys representing indigent defendants. Staff and roster attorneys now benefit from ongoing trainings, which they are utilizing in court. Instead of seeing these training as merely fulfilling training requirements, we are seeing attorneys applying the learned knowledge to better represent clients. This is awesome! Attorneys are seeing clients earlier in the criminal justice process. They are getting relevant case information sooner. They are using that information to get investigators onboard, to hire experts, and to provide indigent clients the same level of representation previously only available to non-indigent clients. We are seeing bond reformation, thereby reducing the number of days defendants spend incarcerated, while reducing the ancillary costs to our clients and the financial burdens on taxpayers. We have also seen a surge in interlocutory appeals, challenging the trial courts’ rulings. The front-line attorneys, who are creatively implementing the MIDC reforms, are the reformers of our criminal justice system.

MAACS has undergone a similar transition. Brad Hall took the reins at MAACS around 2015. He embarked on a mission to transform assigned appellate services. During the ensuing years, Brad and his team converted a circuit-by-circuit appointment system into geographical regions. The technological advancements for assignments created a rapid turn-around time. Conferences with clients in various prisons scattered throughout the state can now be conducted by videoconferencing. And MAACS is now getting state funding for indigent appellate services and has implemented a uniform fee structure. For me (Rick), after nearly three decades of doing MAACS appeals for $40 an hour with a $500 cap for plea cases and $1500 cap for trial cases, I finally got a raise.

Do you have any advice for other defense attorneys, particularly those that are just starting out?

First, study hard and be prepared. You will never know everything, but you can continue to study and learn throughout the duration of your career. And there is no substitute for preparation.

Second, remain humble. If you are humble enough to know that you do not know everything, then you will continue to study and you will work for the benefit of your clients. True humility helps us remember why we do this work: not for our own benefit, but for the people, who deserve the best we can bring to representing each one of them as an individual.

Finally, as Rick’s friend Sheila Deming Robertson said in closing her “Spotlight On” article several years ago, “. . . mentor younger lawyers. . . [W]e all need to ‘pass it along.’” To that end, we have had the privilege of mentoring some younger public defenders. They are extremely dedicated, talented young attorneys and the future of indigent criminal defense. And I (Rick) know that I personally have gained more from them than I have given.

Kathy Swedlow
CDRC Manager and Editor