National Public Defender Day Date in the current year: March 18, 2024

National Public Defender Day National Public Defender Day, also known as National Public Defense Day, is observed in the United States on March 18 every year. It was created to honor lawyers representing criminal defenders who cannot afford to hire a lawyer to defend themselves in court.

National Public Defender Day was created in 2016. Its date was chosen to commemorate the Supreme Court Decision in Gideon v. Wainwright, which guaranteed the right to free legal counsel for indigent criminal defendants in both federal and state courts. It was a landmark decision that set the precedent on how legal counsel would work in the US.

Prior to the adoption of the Sixth Amendment to the United States Constitution, legal aid was accessible only to those defendants who could afford to pay for an attorney. The Sixth Amendment, ratified in 1791 as part of the Bill of Rights, guarantees criminal defendants the right to be assisted by counsel.

After the introduction of the right to counsel by the Sixth Amendment, it was further interpreted and expanded by the Supreme Court. For example, in Johnson v. Zerbst (1938), the Supreme Court ruled that indigent criminal defendants are entitled to have counsel appointed to represent them in all federal cases at the expense of the government. However, this decision did not impose these requirements upon state courts.

In 1961, a poor drifter named Clarence Earl Gideon was accused in a Florida state court of felony breaking and entering. Since Gideon was too poor to afford to pay for a defense lawyer, he appeared in the court alone and requested the assistance of counsel. However, the trial court declined to appoint counsel to represent Gideon because Florida law only appointed counsel to represent indigent defendants in capital cases.

On August 25, 1961, Gideon was sentenced to five years in prison, which was the maximum sentence for his charge. While incarcerated, he studied the legal system and decided to petition the Supreme Court to hear his appeal. Initially named Gideon v. Cochran, his appeal case was renamed Gideon v. Wainwright when Louie L. Wainwright replaced H. G. Cochran as the director of the Florida Division of Corrections. Abe Fortas, future associate justice of the Supreme Court, was assigned as Gideon’s counsel.

The case was argued on January 15, 1963, and on March 18, the Supreme Court announced its unanimous decision that criminal defendants unable to afford counsel have the right to appointed counsel in all federal and stage felony proceedings. Gideon had a retrial in a Florida court, where he was defended by W. Fred Turner, and was successfully acquitted by the jury.

It should be noted, however, that different jurisdictions still use different approaches in providing legal counsel for criminal defenders who cannot afford to hire a private attorney. For example, most states have a maximum income threshold for indigent defendants, which may vary depending on the severity of the charges.

Public defenders in the United States work for government-funded agencies providing legal representation to those who cannot afford to hire an attorney, called public defender’s offices. They are full-time attorneys employed by the federal or state governments.

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