Persons charged in criminal and certain other special proceedings face the potential loss of significant liberty. Recognizing this, the founders of our country included the Sixth Amendment, which provides for the right to a lawyer for a person accused of a crime, in the Bill of Rights.
However, it was not until the case of Gideon v. Wainwright
(1963) 372 U.S. 335 that the United States Supreme Court ruled the Constitution not only mandates the right to counsel for the accused, but it also mandates that if a person cannot afford an attorney, the government must provide one.
Two primary rationales under girded the Supreme Court's Gideon
- The due process right to be heard when accused, and the right to confront the state's evidence or produce evidence in court was hollow unless a lawyer could assist the accused.
- Such legal expertise existed on the side of the state in the form of paid full-time lawyer/prosecutors, so fairness demanded that the accused have the same type of professional assistance when being prosecuted by the state.
California law requires that each county provide this constitutionally mandated representation. Pursuant to Government Code Section 27706, most counties in California have established Public Defender Offices to comply with this mandate. Because public defenders specialize in criminal law and make large numbers of court appearances, clients benefit from cost saving advantages and heightened expertise when compared to a system of appointed private attorneys drawn from throughout the legal community.