Features

Turtle Tales: The Frisbee-Throwing Public Defender

BRIAN SHOBE, Turtle Tales Columnist

Dustin Haskell’07 came to Beloit having little idea about what he wanted to do, so he explored math, music, theatre, environmental science, and politics. By the end of his first year, he imagined himself becoming a chemist fluent in Japanese. What he became is entirely different: an assistant state public defender.

What caused this change in course? A class on constitutional law with professor (now provost and dean of the College) Ann Davies.

Davies divided her students into three groups–appellants, appellees and justices–and then assigned them to play out an actual upcoming Supreme Court case. Haskell and six other students ended up justices and spent the remainder of the semester collaboratively researching and writing the court’s opinion.

Haskell recalls, “The U.S. Supreme Court only takes a case because it’s unclear and doesn’t have an answer in the first place… So we had to do a lot of grueling, bizarre research and then synthesize it all together to come up with a workable, coherent solution.”

It wasn’t easy, but it piqued his interest in law. The fact that the real Supreme Court’s opinion, released a few months later, closely resembled his group’s was just icing on the cake.

Now interested in trying a legal career on for size, Haskell took an internship with a law firm in Connecticut. He spent the summer combing through obscure state statutes and remembers feeling completely overwhelmed. But he enjoyed it, which confirmed his interest in legal studies and decision to begin applying to law schools.

Eventually, Haskell was accepted into and enrolled at the University of Wisconsin–Madison, where he obtained his Juris Doctor. From there, he says he could have gone into a lucrative career in some gigantic law firm, but he instead chose his current public defender position.

This is noteworthy because, as state employees who only take on clients unable to afford an attorney, public defenders don’t get paid much. And in appeals, where Haskell works, the odds are even more stacked against them. “My coworkers and I go into this knowing we’re going to lose most cases, so we have to collaborate, pay close attention to detail, pick apart the holes in the courts’ opinions, find novel arguments or innovative ways to tie cases to precedent, and in one way or another, persist in the face of adversity.”

So why public defense and not something more lucrative? “Giving back was a major objective.”

That objective, he goes on, was shaped by his internships in public service settings, with the Neighborhood Housing Services of Beloit (via the Duffy Program), the League of Conservation Voters, and Congresswoman Tammy Baldwin, as well as the campus environment. “[Beloit] was an excellent place to foster that desire,” says Haskell.

And the other Beloit tradition that Haskell carries on?

Ultimate Frisbee. “I’ve become a full-fledged convert; I’ve got all sorts of competitions and teams that I’m playing with nowadays. That’s probably the tradition that carried on past my Beloit years as much as any.”

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