1946 February 27

Judge Urges System of Public Defenders


Judge Augustus Hand of the Second Circuit Court of Appeals told a meeting of the New York Legal Aid Society on this day that the U.S. needed a system of public defenders to represent poor defendants in criminal courts. “Poverty is a greater barrier to the assertion of legal rights than it was in the old days of small villages,” he argued.

At the time, the U.S. had a patchwork system of legal defense for those who could not afford a private attorney. Many defendants went to court with no attorney at all. Some cities had legal aid societies that provided lawyers for some defendants. And in some cases, judges appointed a lawyer. That system changed as a result of the landmark Supreme Court decision in Gideon v. Wainwright, on March 18, 1963, in which the Supreme Court ruled that under the Sixth Amendment all defendants facing felony charges and possible imprisonment were entitled to an attorney.

The Sixth Amendment: “In all criminal prosecutions, the accused shall enjoy the right to a speedy and public trial, by an impartial jury of the state and district wherein the crime shall have been committed, which district shall have been previously ascertained by law, and to be informed of the nature and cause of the accusation; to be confronted with the witnesses against him; to have compulsory process for obtaining witnesses in his favor, and to have the assistance of counsel for his defense.”

Read the classic book on the Gideon case: Anthony Lewis, Gideon’s Trumpet (1964)

Learn more from the National Association for Public Defense here.

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