Why the office was created
The 6th Amendment to our United States Constitution declares that “In all criminal prosecutions, the accused shall … have the assistance of counsel for his defense.” This means that any person can have an attorney represent them in court on any criminal charges they may face. Until 1963 this right was reserved only to those wealthy enough to hire an attorney. People charged with committing a crime who could not afford to hire an attorney were left to represent themselves. The unfairness and opportunities for injustice to occur in such a system is apparent to anyone. The prosecutor was always well educated having graduated high school, college and law school, always well qualified having passed the state bar examination and usually well experienced having handled hundreds and sometimes thousands of prosecutions in court. A citizen, representing himself, not educated in the law or rules of evidence, not as qualified, skilled or experienced as the prosecutor yet presumed innocent under our law had little or no chance in the courtroom. In 1963, the United States Supreme Court decided in the case of Gideon v. Wainwright that any citizen charged with a criminal offense and unable to hire an attorney shall have an attorney appointed if they so desire. Shortly thereafter Florida and other states created offices of the Public Defender to represent these citizens.
Who is the Public Defender?
The Public Defender is an elected constitutional officer of the State of Florida who must be a lawyer and a member of the Florida Bar for at least five years. The responsibility of the office is to provide legal counsel when appointed by the court to those threatened with loss of liberty and who cannot afford to hire a lawyer. Each of the 20 Judicial Circuits in Florida is served by an Office of the Public Defender. Lawyers who are members of the Florida Bar are employed as Assistant Public Defenders. The Public Defender and Assistant Public Defenders are ethically bound to the same Code of Professional Responsibility and disciplinary rules which bind all attorneys.
Public Defender’s Staff
The staff is composed of Assistant Public Defenders who are licensed attorneys and members of the Florida Bar, investigators, paralegals, clerical and administrative staff. Third year law students and law school graduates who are not yet admitted to the Florida Bar may serve as legal interns. As part of their continuing education, investigators and lawyers regularly attend training programs and the Public Defender conducts training sessions for all employees.
The Public Defender does not represent persons in a civil case. Civil representation is available in Brevard County through Brevard County Legal Aid www.brevardcountylegalaid.org or in Seminole County through the Seminole County Bar Association’s Legal Aid Services www.scbalas.com.