What is a Public Defender? - Definition & History

Instructor: Wendy Faircloth

Wendy has taught all subjects of high school social studies and English and has a master's degree in Secondary Education.

Public defenders have a challenging job - providing legal services for people involved in a criminal proceeding who cannot afford their own private attorneys. These public servants deal with a heavy caseload and limited resources. The hard-working attorneys provide an essential service in the American justice system: protecting the fundamental right to a fair trial.

Meeting a Public Defender: A Short Story

Resting his head on his hands, the young man looked up at the woman seated across the table from him. She was wearing a neatly pressed navy-blue suit and jotting notes on a legal pad.

'Mr. Anderson, my name is Kate Evans and I am with the Public Defender's Office. I have been appointed to represent you in your criminal case. Do you understand that you have been charged with drug possession and having an illegal weapon?'

'That stuff wasn't mine! I just dropped off a friend…' Joey Anderson stopped abruptly at the attorney's stern look.

'We'll discuss your defense later. At this time, I want to focus on your bail hearing,' she said calmly.

Joey felt a sense of panic. Bail? Who would post his bail? And could he trust this person? He had no money to pay her and wondered if she knew that.

'I don't have any money,' he muttered. 'How are you getting paid?'

Ms. Evans looked up. 'I'm sorry, I thought you understood that I am with the Public Defender's Office.'

'I've never heard of that,' Joey said. 'What exactly is a public defender?'

Ms. Evans replied, 'We are paid by the state. A public defender represents people accused of a crime who cannot afford a private attorney. Our office exists to make sure that everyone gets a fair trial. We think that justice should not be based on the amount of money you have.'

Joey looked skeptical. 'Are you a real lawyer?' he asked. He wondered why anyone who had gone through law school would work as a public defender. Why not make the big bucks in a fancy law firm?

Ms. Evans smiled. 'Yes, Mr. Anderson, I am a real lawyer. I passed the state bar exam with a high score,' she said. 'I even graduated in the top ten percent of my class. You can be assured that I am capable of representing you.'

Public Defenders: Qualified Attorneys With a Difficult But Rewarding Job

In spite of Joey's doubts, Ms. Evans is in fact a highly competent attorney. Like many public defenders, she believes in the work she does to make sure that everyone gets a fair trial. Ms. Evans enjoys the challenge of representing indigent defendants, those who cannot afford to pay for their own defense. Since she is in court on a daily basis, she knows other attorneys and judges well and uses this knowledge to skillfully advocate for her clients.

Public defenders are employed at the local, state, and federal levels. The government pays their salaries and expenses (although they do not have the same budget to spend on legal expenses that private clients can afford). Each jurisdiction determines who qualifies for a public defender based on the defendant's income and expenses.

Why Are Public Defenders Necessary?

Why does the government pay to defend those accused of a crime? The Constitution of the United States ensures everyone, including the poor, of the right to a fair trial. The Sixth Amendment of the Constitution states that in all criminal prosecutions, the accused will 'have the Assistance of Counsel for his defence.' Over time, the Supreme Court has ruled that this right is applied to the states through the 'due process' clause of the Fourteenth Amendment. One of the most significant decisions regarding this right to counsel (a qualified attorney) in criminal cases is Gideon v. Wainwright.

The Legal History of the Right to Counsel

Clarence Gideon

In the Gideon case, Clarence Earl Gideon was accused of breaking and entering a pool hall in Florida and stealing money. He asked the trial judge to appoint him an attorney, since he could not afford one. The trial judge denied the request, saying that counsel (an attorney) only had to be provided for capital (death penalty) cases. Gideon was tried and had to represent himself. He was found guilty. He appealed his conviction to the Florida Supreme Court, which denied his petition and ruled that his rights were not violated. Gideon's next appeal was to the Supreme Court of the United States in 1963.

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