Nebraska Federal Defenders Meet at Work, Discover They’re Sisters
December 7, 2016 (Fault Lines) — I suppose you have heard the phrase, “six degrees of separation.” If not, these words suggest that all living things and everything else in the world is six or fewer steps away from each other, so that a chain of “a friend of a friend” can be made to connect any two people in a maximum of six steps. Whether this is true empirically may be doubtful, but in this divisive time it is a comforting notion.
David Stickman* is our Federal Public Defender. He is a great CDL and hires equally talented defense lawyers as his assistants. And this brings me to Nebraska AFPDs Julie Hansen and Kelly Mahoney Steenbock. They are pictured here together:
It seems that Julie and Kelly and some others from the Defenders office were sitting around discussing the coming weekend (and probably where to go to have a drink and bitch about the judges). This was in March of 2015, and Kelly had just started at the Defender’s office after serving as a highly regarded state public defender in Omaha. Julie had been with the federal defender much longer, after she was recruited from the state public defender’s office in Lincoln. She, too, was highly regarded and whip-smart, graduating from the University of Nebraska College of Law with honors.
Both women were in their 40s, married with children. There were other similarities. As the two talked, they both realized they had grown up in Bellevue, Nebraska, the fastest growing city in Nebraska and home to the U.S. Strategic Command.
And then things got very weird:
Before long, a few random tidbits of information – an aunt named Terry, a grandmother with a yarn shop, and an absentee father with a drinking problem and the surname Mahoney – led the two to the out-of-nowhere realization they are half-sisters who share the same father. Hugs and tears ensued, and life for the two attorneys-colleagues-sisters has been very different since.
Administrative Office of the United States Courts, Judiciary News (November 22, 2016).
Both women had suffered through extremely tough childhoods before getting to the pinnacle of their profession. They had gotten to that peak through sheer grit and determination.
“Part of it is having the intestinal fortitude to be strong in an environment that we both were not cultivated for – college,” Hansen said. “Neither one of us was satisfied with our life. We were restless in Bellevue, where we were looking, at best, at a lifetime of mediocrity.”
Hansen and Steenbock are working to find peace with the father who left them as children and who died from organ failure related to alcohol abuse in 2007. Whatever his shortcomings, they see some of his traits – his quick wit, sociability and intelligence – in each other. “He did give us each other, and probably our professional lives, that restlessness you have to have to keep searching for answers in the law,” Hansen says. “We have him to thank for that.”
But why did they both become criminal defense lawyers, and particularly public defenders?
This is Julie’s take: “The people they were serving were like the people I grew up around. These were people I could understand and talk to. . . . The public defenders themselves were brash and funny, with tough outer exteriors but gentle souls. I realized these were my people.” Id.
Kelly’s views were similar. “I observed that people who are poor were not treated fairly by people in power. I saw the law as the way to be the person who fights for people who don’t have a voice.” Id.
In the musical Annie there is a wonderful song, appropriate to Julie and Kelly. The lyrics begin by repeating the following two identical lines: “It’s the hard-knock life for us! It’s the hard-knock life for us!”
Despite a “hard-knock life,” Annie overcame. Just ask Julie and Kelly.
Richard G. Kopf
Senior United States District Judge (Nebraska)
*David R. Stickman was appointed to the position of Federal Public Defender for the District of Nebraska by the United States Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit in 1993, and he has been continually reappointed. Stickman is past president of the National Association of Federal Defenders, and the Nebraska Criminal Defense Attorneys Association. He has been a Commissioner of the Nebraska Commission on Public Advocacy since its inception. Stickman is also the Past-President of the Robert Spire American Inn of Court. David also manages our excellent Criminal Justice Act panel of private CDLs. He is one of my very favorite lawyers and people.