Since the Bill of Rights was enacted in 1791, the Sixth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution has provided some of the most important protections for people who are accused of crimes. These include the right to a trial by jury and the right to face one’s accusers.
However, one of the Sixth Amendment’s most important protections didn’t get fully recognized until 1963. This was the year the Supreme Court, in a famous case known as Gideon v. Wainwright, ruled that the states must provide a defense attorney for defendants who are not able to afford one on their own.
Once the Gideon ruling clarified the right to counsel, every state had to set up its own system to provide public defense lawyers for defendants who cannot afford their own attorney. Missouri has more than 30 state public defender’s offices that work at the trial level. These offices provide attorneys to defend people who have been accused of crimes.
Most of these attorneys work for their local public defender’s office. In a small number of cases, the state hires private attorneys to act as public defenders.
Public defenders have an extremely important job. Many of these attorneys do exemplary work, and they do it because they are profoundly committed to justice and the rule of law. But it can be an extremely difficult job.
Public defenders must build their cases without the resources prosecutors have, and they often must take on far more cases than individual prosecutors handle. As a result, public defenders often must do more with less. They may not have sufficient time to build a strong defense strategy. They may not have enough time get to know their clients and their unique needs and concerns.
Right to counsel
Several times since the Gideon ruling, the Supreme Court has had to revisit the Sixth Amendment’s right to counsel. Most of these later cases have involved fairly technical questions. For instance, in a 1986 case, the court ruled that the right to counsel kicks in the moment the defendant has their first court hearing. In other words, a defendant has the right to representation at their first hearing, but the state doesn’t necessarily have to appoint them a lawyer before that.
In several controversial cases, the Supreme Court has weighed the question of whether the right to counsel means the right to effective counsel. These cases have involved very sad cases in which defendants were represented by public defenders who were overworked, or otherwise provided unsatisfactory legal service. In some rare cases where the representation is bad enough, the court ruled that defendants can request a new trial.
Once again, it’s important to note that many public defenders are doing excellent work. Unfortunately, the system is in many ways stacked against them.
Prosecutors don’t have the same burdens. They have ample resources to build a case against a defendant, and they are highly trained and capable.
Defendants need to seek out private defense attorneys if they can, to make sure they have someone with the time and resources they need to fight for their futures and defend their rights.