Public Defender

A public defender is a lawyer appointed to represent individuals accused of a crime, who are unable to hire an attorney for financial reasons. The U.S. Constitution affords all individuals the right to representation when charged with a crime. If an accused individual cannot afford to hire an attorney, and the state does not provide him with one, he cannot be legally prosecuted. To explore this concept, consider the following public defender definition.

Definition of Public Defender


  1. An attorney appointed by the court to represent criminal defendants who are unable to afford to hire a private attorney.
  2. A lawyer paid by public funds to represent indigent defendants.


1932     U.S. Supreme Court case Powell v. Alabama, 287 U.S. 45 (1932)

What is a Public Defender

A public defender is a criminal defense attorney appointed by the court to represent defendants unable to afford an attorney. Public defenders are paid by the state, but are required under oath to represent the criminal defendant as a private attorney would under the same circumstances. Public defenders are provided to criminal defendants free of charge, as long as they can show the court they are unable to pay for private representation.

Federal Public Defenders

Federal Public Defenders provide criminal defense services to indigent individuals accused of federal crimes. The individual defendant’s financial eligibility for services from the federal public defender’s office is determined by the federal court at the beginning of the case, at the time the defendant requests representation be provided.

Federal public defenders typically have a much lower caseload than public defenders at the state level, each assistant federal public defender handling, on average, 30-50 cases at a time. This is compared to a state public defender’s caseload that is frequently over 100 cases at a time.

Public Defender’s Office

Most counties and cities throughout the United States have dedicated public defender’s offices, which are staffed with government-employed attorneys that represent defendants free of charge. In small towns and some cities, there is no governmental public defender agency. In this case, local attorneys are contracted ad-hoc, and appointed on a rotating basis to represent indigent defendants. These attorneys, while maintaining their own practices, are paid by government funds for these appointed cases.

If a defendant is granted a public defender, he or she is given information by the court as to where and when to meet with the appointed attorney.

How to Get a Public Defender

When a person finds himself in need of legal representation after being arrested for a criminal act, there are certain steps to be taken in order to receive the assistance of a public defender.

  1. Request the Public Defender at Arraignment. The first court appearance after being arrested and formally charged is an arraignment. At the arraignment, the defendant can ask the judge for a court-appointed attorney.
  2. Prove Financial Inability to Pay for an Attorney. The defendant may be required to prove his inability to pay for private representation by providing proof of his financial situation, including information about the dependents they are supporting. The lower the defendant’s income and available assets, and the greater severity of the charge, the more likely the defendant will be given a public defender.
  3. Schedule an Appointment with the Public Defender’s Office. If the court approves a public defender, the defendant should contact the public defender’s office to arrange a meeting in which information will be gathered to match the defendant with a specific attorney.

Landmark Public Defender Case

In 1931, nine African-American boys were accused of raping two woman on a train, after kicking off their seven male companions. The boys, who became known as “the Scottsboro Boys,” were quickly arrested by the sheriff in Scottsboro, Alabama, where a lynch mob quickly gathered outside the jail. The defendants were not allowed to consult with an attorney after their arrest. At the time, the court system was only required to appoint counsel for individuals facing charges for “capital crimes.”

On the morning of the trial, only six days after their arrest, the defendants still had no legal representation. A retired lawyer, 69-year old Mike Moody, volunteered to the task that morning, and the trial began. At the end of a series of brief trials, in which the defense attorney failed to put on much of a defense at all, eight of the nine defendants were convicted and sentenced to death. The ninth defendant was a 12-year old boy, and so was spared this dark sentence.

With the execution set for just three months from the time of the sentencing, the condemned young men received a reprieve when the Communist Party USA stepped in, requesting a stay on the basis that the girls were actually prostitutes. While the Alabama Supreme Court did not buy this defense, and reaffirmed the death sentences, it gave the defendants time to obtain a ruling from the U.S. Supreme Court. In the landmark case Powell v. Alabama, 287 U.S. 45 (1932), the Court ruled that due process guaranteed by the U.S. Constitution had been violated when the court failed to give these defendants time to obtain counsel, and by failing to appoint attorneys to represent them.

The matter was returned to the trial court level for new proceedings, which were again troubled by racism, both in the proceedings, and in the jury selection. It was during this time that one of the alleged “victims” admitted that none of the defendants had actually touched either of the young women, but that they had made up the story. In the end, the defendants suffered through many re-trials, remaining in custody the entire time. Most were sentenced to long prison sentences, and one was sentenced again to death, though that sentence was later commuted to life in prison.

The Supreme Court ruling in Powell v. Alabama was the beginning of the modern system of providing public defenders to indigent defendants in any criminal case for which incarceration is a possibility. In 2013, more than 80 years later, the state of Alabama granted posthumous pardons to the Scottsboro Boys.

Related Legal Terms and Issues

  • Arraignment – A hearing in which an accused is formally advised of the criminal charges against him, and during which he may enter a plea.
  • Criminal Act – An act committed by an individual that is in violation of the law, or that poses a threat to the public.
  • Defendant – A party against whom a lawsuit has been filed in civil court, or who has been accused of, or charged with, a crime or offense.
  • Jurisdiction – The legal authority to hear legal cases and make judgments; the geographical region of authority to enforce justice.

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