Public defense is vital work; we must continue to treat it that way

March 16, 2021

An old adage says, “A lawyer who represents himself has a fool for a client.” 

But what about those people forced to represent themselves without the benefit of a knowledgeable and skilled lawyer?  For many years, the criminal justice system denied representation to those accused of a crime who were too poor to hire their own attorneys. Only relatively recently did our jurisprudence guarantee the fundamental right to counsel for every person charged with a crime.  

During the week of March 18, we celebrate National Public Defense Week, and we mark the 58th anniversary of the landmark United States Supreme Court decision in Gideon v. Wainwright.  The court in Gideon recognized that the power of the state must be met with a robust defense to safeguard a person’s constitutional rights. As the Supreme Court recognized in Gideon, defense lawyers in the criminal courts are “necessities, not luxuries.”

It’s fitting that National Public Defense Week occurs in the middle of Women’s History Month.  In fact, it was a woman who originally advocated for the public defense movement. Seventy years before the Gideon decision, Clara Shortridge Foltz, the first female attorney on the West Coast, launched the public defender movement at the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair.  

She proposed the right to publicly funded counsel as a check and balance on the power of the prosecutor. Foltz lobbied tirelessly for governments to adopt her “defender bill,” and the first public defender agency was established in Los Angeles County in 1914. From there, the movement grew but was not widely adopted until the Gideon decision in 1963.

Despite Gideon’s promise, the appointment of counsel is still often in name only. Far too many public defender systems are overworked and underfunded. In reality, the national public defense system is a patchwork of local, state, and nonprofit agencies, where justice by geography is a stark reality.  

“Justice for all” means nothing if only those with means are afforded the zealous representation to which all are entitled. If we are to achieve a criminal justice system that is fair and balanced, one that eradicates racial and wealth disparities, we must make funding for public defense a national priority.  In 2019, another trailblazing woman, now vice president, then Sen. Kamala Harris, proposed legislation supporting public funding for indigent defense.  Strong public defense systems, such as Delaware’s, can serve as a model for others, but only with sufficient funding to support their practice and to attract talented professionals dedicated to public service. 

According to the American Bar Association, on average, law school graduates carry about $145,500 in student debt.  However, the incentives to help them repay their loans are few and far between. 

Newly admitted lawyers often cannot follow their passion to make a difference in public defense work when the starting salary is roughly $64,000, compared to a starting salary of up to $180,000 at some of the largest firms in Delaware.

As we recognize the impact of public defenders during National Public Defense Week, we cannot forget the words of Gideon or the dedication of “first female public defender” Clara Shortridge Foltz. To achieve Foltz’s vision of a strong, vibrant public defense system, we need to continue to invest in the very agencies tasked with delivering the promise made in the Gideon decision 58 years ago.

Lisa Minutola is the chief of legal services for the Office of Defense Services.
  • Cape Gazette commentaries are written by readers whose occupations, education, community positions or demonstrated focus in particular areas offer an opportunity to expand our readership's understanding or awareness of issues of interest.

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