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PORTRAITS

A 'Thank You' Is Her Highest Pay

June 24, 1988|JOSEPH N. BELL

Orange County Deputy Public Defender Marla Moller says she honestly doesn't understand why she was one of 25 women nationwide honored for overcoming obstacles and taking charge of their own lives after the age of 30.

"It shouldn't be newsworthy when somebody on welfare gets off and does well," she says.

She genuinely believes that, too, even though she has been happy to accept the perks that have gone along with the award--$1,000 and a fair amount of publicity that has included several television interviews and an appearance with the Rev. Robert H. Schuller on his television show. She accepts all this philosophically. "Andy Warhol once said that some time or other, everyone has their 15 minutes (of fame). I guess I'm having mine."

Moller is an original, a Jewish mother to the Orange County public defender's office ("the best law firm in town") and all the downtrodden people within her reach. She is a slight, slim woman of 39 with enormous hazel eyes that could not possibly be as innocent as they look, and long, dark hair. Her posture is slightly hunched as if she were perpetually walking into the wind in a desperate hurry. Which she is. There simply isn't enough time for her to right all the social wrongs that need to be fixed and take care of two young sons at the same time. But she is giving it a hell of a shot--which, whether she agrees or not, is probably why she won the Clairol award.

Eight years ago, Moller was, indeed, on welfare. She was coming off a recent divorce. She had two small children and skills that were not marketable. Trained as a teacher, she lacked a California credential and wasn't making it as a free-lance writer. So she decided to do what she had wanted to do since she got out of college: go to law school.

She had enrolled in law school once before, 10 years earlier, but marriage and a family got in the way. Moller is a native of the South Side of Chicago. "Our neighborhood," she recalls, "was like a womb. It was made up of lower-income, working-class people, mostly Jewish, and everybody fit in. Holidays were wonderful. We never worried about being on the streets at Halloween. Our doors were never locked. I had the Museum of Science and Industry as a playground. I thought all of Chicago--and I guess all of the world--was like that."

Her family moved to San Bernardino when she was 16, and she graduated from high school there and enrolled at UCLA--"with Lew Alcindor," she points out. "I never went to a football game because I was working weekends and couldn't afford transportation, anyway. But I followed basketball because it was on campus. I still do, even though Lew Alcindor is now Kareem Abdul-Jabaar."

She transferred to John Carroll University in Cleveland, got a teaching credential, taught briefly in Ohio, then went to Chicago to work on the staff of a magazine called Gallery. That is when she thought about law school for the first time. Instead, she married a boy from the old neighborhood and they set up housekeeping in Orange County. Sons Joe and Nick arrived soon after, a year apart, and Marla stayed home to care for them while she tried--not very successfully--to pick up extra money by writing. Her marriage lasted seven years. A year after her divorce, Nick went to kindergarten and Marla went to law school, financed by scholarships and borrowed money. It took her 2 1/2 years of juggling schedules and creative financing to get her law degree. "My single greatest nightmare was always: What would I do if the child-care provider turned up sick?"

When she passed the bar on her first try, she knew exactly what she wanted to do. "From the beginning," she says, "I wanted to be a public defender. I believe we're here to help each other. It's your bottom line, basic Golden Rule. I know what it's like to have to depend on someone else, how terribly vulnerable these people feel, especially if they get in trouble. When they look up at me now and say 'thank you,' it's the highest pay I can imagine. No one has ever fought for most of them before."

A lot of other attorneys wanted to be public defenders, too. When the first openings were posted after Moller passed the bar, there were 153 applicants for three jobs. Moller got one of them. "I told the man who interviewed me," she says, "that if you don't hire me, I'll be back in six months and six months after that and six months after that."

She started in Juvenile Court in August, 1985, and hasn't slowed down since. The day we talked, her desk was piled with telephone messages from a mix of people that she has helped in the past and have called to report progress or backsliding; people she is presently involved in defending, and people who have heard her on television or read about her and are calling for help.

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