Back To CourseCivics Study Guide
18 chapters | 146 lessons
Darnell sat in the courtroom waiting for his case to be called so he could meet his court-appointed attorney today. The bench he was on emptied as the other defendants paired up with their finely dressed attorneys. Then he saw a young looking attorney in khakis and a blazer. Darnell assumed that was his court-appointed attorney. But the judge called his name, and an older attorney stepped up to him and handed him a raised letter, glossy business card from some high-powered firm. Was this Darnell's lucky day? Maybe a mistake?
It wasn't a mistake. Darnell lived in a county that used both public defenders and assigned counsel when a court-appointed attorney was needed. A public defender is a criminal defense attorney who gets paid a salary by the government (federal, state, or local) to argue the cases of indigent or poor defendants who have been charged with a crime and cannot afford a lawyer. Assigned counsel also defends those who can't afford an attorney, but these lawyers work in private practice, and the government pays them on a case by case basis.
The Sixth Amendment to the Constitution says anyone charged with a crime has the right to counsel. At the founding of this country, that meant that the government couldn't prohibit you bringing your own attorney; it didn't mean the government paid for an attorney for anyone who couldn't afford one. This interpretation started to evolve in the 1930s, when the Supreme Court made its landmark ruling that extended the right to an attorney to those who couldn't afford one in federal criminal cases, and was expanded by the Supreme Court again in the 1960s to apply to state cases, too.
Clarence Earl Gideon, a career petty criminal, broke into a pool room, took some cash and a bottle of wine. He was charged with breaking and entering to commit a misdemeanor, which was a felony. The judge denied his request for an attorney, and he was convicted and sentenced to five years in jail. He appealed all the way to the Supreme Court, which in 1963 held that it was a violation of due process (Fourteenth Amendment) and the right to an attorney (Sixth Amendment) to not provide every indigent defendant charged with a felony at the state level with an attorney paid for by the state. Prior to this decision, most states only provided an attorney to defendants who couldn't afford one in capital offenses where life imprisonment or the death penalty were possible sentences.
In most counties across the U.S., it works like this: A defendant is charged with a crime that could result in a 'significant loss of liberty' (typically jail) and applies for a court-appointed attorney. The court determines if he or she qualifies, then an attorney is appointed. In many states, if the defendant ends up pleading guilty or loses at a trial, then he or she would have to reimburse the attorney fees. Usually the amount due is lessened based on the level of poverty of the defendant.
Remember, an assigned counsel is a private attorney who takes court-appointed cases and gets paid by the hour, whereas the public defender is an attorney who works only for the government - although they are bound by ethics to defend their client to the best of their ability - and gets paid a salary, no matter the caseload. Many states are called mixed states in that they use both. In the larger counties, these mixed states will have a public defender's office, usually at the courthouse, and they will have a staff of attorneys who will handle the indigent caseload. For the most part, these attorneys will only work in that county or judicial district, leaving the rest of the state to use the assigned counsel method.
In assigned counsel districts, private attorneys volunteer to be on the list of appointed attorneys, and the judges choose them from the list when a defendant qualifies. Private attorneys are also used in public defender districts as the public defender's office gets overwhelmed with cases or there is a conflict of interest in the public defender's office. This typically occurs when the public defender's office is representing a defendant and a co-defendant where the two might have adverse interest.
For example, if two defendants are charged with murder, they both might start pointing the finger at the other one, or one might be flipped by the police (where the police get one to testify against the other for a reduced sentence). In these situations, the U.S. Supreme Court has held that each public defender's office is like a law firm, and as such it would be a conflict for it to defend both clients.
The Sixth Amendment to the Constitution guarantees everyone the right to an attorney. After Gideon v. Wainwright, this means that if a defendant faces criminal charges and can't afford an attorney, the government will provide one. This is accomplished in two ways: assigned counsel, where private attorneys are paid by the hour by the state, and public defenders, who are salaried employees of the government (federal, state, or local) and do nothing but represent indigent criminal defendants. Some states use both systems, and even in those systems that primarily use public defenders, a private attorney may be appointed in cases of conflict of interest.
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Back To CourseCivics Study Guide
18 chapters | 146 lessons