I’ve been assigned a P.D. Is she a real lawyer? Should I ask another lawyer about the soundness of her advice?
Public defenders are, indeed, real lawyers. They went to law school and passed their state’s Bar exam, just like private attorneys.
Public vrs. Private: Any Difference in Quality?
Despite the increasingly severe fiscal constraints on their offices, public defenders usually provide representation that is at least as competent as that provided by private defense attorneys. This was demonstrated by a 1992 study conducted by the National Center for State Courts entitled, “Indigent Defenders Get the Job Done and Done Well.” The study concluded that P.D.s and private counsel achieve approximately equal results. For example, in the nine counties surveyed in the study, 76% of public defender clients were convicted, compared to 74% of private counsel clients.
Additionally, public defender jobs tend to be so competitive that P.D. offices can select highly qualified attorneys. True, many P.D.s stay for a few years, gain intensive experience, and then leave for the supposedly greener pastures of private practice. However, most public defender offices offer excellent training programs, so that even recently arrived P.D.s can rapidly build expertise. In some large metropolitan areas (in California and New York, for example), the Public Defender offices are highly respected, giving their clients representation that only a highly-experienced (and expensive) private attorney could match.
Despite these good points, there is much that is wrong with many appointed-counsel programs:
Too much work, not enough money. Regardless of the competence of individual court-appointed attorneys, they are often asked to perform too much work for not enough money. This is especially true of public defender programs. Local politicians don’t win many votes by expanding the budget for court-appointed lawyers to keep up with the growth in criminal prosecutions. For example, courts in Louisiana and Minnesota have ruled that the system of free legal defense services is so badly underfunded that it is unconstitutional. And in a California case, Williams v. Superior Court, 53 Cal. Rptr. 2d 832 (1996), the court noted that a deputy public defender was representing 21 defendants whose cases were beyond the time limit to take them to trial—yet was eligible for additional assignments.
Don’t rock the boat. Court-appointed lawyers often appear in the same courtrooms day in and day out, and therefore know their way around the courthouse better than other criminal defense attorneys in the area. This can be a boon for one defendant but bad news for another. For example, the court-appointed attorney may use that familiarity to achieve the best result possible for one client, yet resist rocking the boat in another case to maintain friendly relationships with the judges and prosecutors he or she has to work with every day. The danger is perhaps most acute with panel attorneys. Panel attorneys owe their jobs to the judges who appoint them, and some panel attorneys may fear that taking a position that offends a judge could be seen as biting the hand that feeds them.