Perhaps you are unable to afford a private attorney to handle your case, and you are (rightly) reluctant to handle it on your own. A public defender represents people who are facing criminal charges in these difficult circumstances. The public defender’s office is meant to ensure that no defendant is denied their right to an attorney, which is provided under the Sixth Amendment to the Constitution. The office usually consists of a chief public defender who manages it, as well as assistant public defenders. A public defender is a licensed attorney who is paid by the government to provide this type of representation. They tend to be familiar with the court system in their area, since they spend so much of their time negotiating with prosecutors and handling appearances in court.
You generally do not have a right to choose your own public defender. While you have a right to a court-appointed attorney, the Constitution does not provide a right to the specific court-appointed attorney of your choice. The judge usually will handle the process of appointing the public defender’s office to represent a defendant, and then the office will determine the attorney who will handle the case. This may be affected by logistics, such as which attorneys are in the area of the court. In some cities, different public defenders may handle different stages of the case, as discussed further below.
Vertical and Horizontal Representation
Vertical representation is the type of representation that a defendant normally would receive from a private attorney. This means that the same lawyer handles the case from start to finish. In some cases handled by a public defender’s office, however, the office may use horizontal representation. This means that each phase of the case will be assigned to a different public defender. One attorney may handle the initial phase of bail and arraignment, another attorney may represent the defendant during plea bargaining, and still another attorney may represent the defendant in a trial if the case reaches that stage.
A horizontal representation system can result in confusion for defendants, especially if the public defender’s office fails to properly communicate the changes. Also, a defendant may feel concerned that each attorney will not be familiar with the case file. In theory, though, the public defender’s office should arrange for each successive attorney to leave notes in the file to describe the status of the case and their contributions.
The public defender’s office often will arrange for progressively more experienced attorneys to handle each phase of the case as it advances. An attorney who handles a trial thus will be likely to have handled many trials before.
Concerns over Conflicts of Interest
Some defendants are reluctant to ask for a public defender because they see a public defender as part of the system. They may worry that they share the perspective of law enforcement, prosecutors, and judges. Public defenders often do develop close and respectful relationships with certain judges and prosecutors whom they see regularly. (Private attorneys may build these relationships as well.) However, this does not mean that they no longer do their job effectively. Being familiar with how the system works often can help them represent a client because they will know what to expect from certain individuals on the other side.
Public defenders are not hired by the prosecutor’s office and are not accountable to prosecutors or judges. Both sides understand the importance of zealous representation, and they rarely allow their mutual respect to get in the way of their professional duties.