Confused about a Public Defender or a Court-Appointed Lawyer?

Well, a  book critic certainly was!   Although giving a favorable review of  “The Grievance Committee–Book One,” that reviewer mistakenly identified Jose P. Quiroz as a Public Defender instead of a Court-Appointed Lawyer for serial shoplifter, Alexandra Jimenez.  Believe me,  an important difference exists between a Public Defender and a Court-Appointed Lawyer.

In the story, Jose, the Court-Appointed Lawyer, told Alexandra that sex would make up the difference from his court-appointed fee and the amount of attorney’s fees he would normally charge for representing her in criminal court in his private law practice.   Wait a minute!   Public Defenders have no private law practice.  But, with your permission, let’s explore a little further.


In the United States, when a person is charged with a crime and is unable to obtain a private defense lawyer, the Constitution mandates that a lawyer be appointed.   All courts possess inherit power to appoint lawyers to represent people unable to afford a lawyer.  Yes, even in civil cases, but this happens infrequently.

In 1963, the United States Supreme Court in Gideon vs. Wainwright (372 US 335) decided that an indigent criminal defendant was entitled to a free court-appointed lawyer regardless of the defendant’s education or intelligence.

The Federal Government (and some States) comply with this legal requirement by providing a lawyer from the Public Defender’s Office, whose lawyers are employees of the government and are not allowed to have a private law practice.  The Federal Public Defender operates under the Judicial Branch of government, while in some States–instead of operating under the Judicial Branch of the State–the Public Defender may be organized as a community corporation receiving federal grants and not be any part of the court system.   Usually, the Public Defender is appointed by the Court, although in a few States (like Florida and Tennessee) the Public Defender is elected.

Public Defenders, as paid public employees, operate much like lawyers in the District Attorney’s Office, that is, in having paralegals, forensic experts, investigators, even psychologists to assist with the defense of the criminally accused client.   Without any doubt, the case load of the Public Defender is much heavier than that of  a Court-Appointed Lawyer in private practice,  but the salary of the Public Defender’s lawyers are financially better than the fees awarded Court-Appointed Lawyers through pre-determined attorney’s fees or through an hourly rate basis.

Differing from the Public Defender (on the government’s payroll) and differing from the Court-Appointed Lawyer in private practice is the Lawyer employed with a Legal Aid Society, which may receive funding from public subsidies and/or charitable donations and which will have its own eligibility qualifications for legal representation.

Other States, such as Texas, do not utilize a Public Defender to provide legal services for the criminally accused unable to afford a lawyer.  Instead, private lawyers (like Jose P. Quiroz in the story) are appointed by the Courts and ultimately earn a much lower fee, whether on a hourly basis or at a pre-determined amount for a specific service.   For example, a guilty plea may earn the Court-Appointed Lawyer a small fee no matter the gravity of the case or the duration of the lawyer’s work.

Some States, without a Public Defender, will allow lawyers to escape these appointments in criminal cases by buying their way off the appointment lists; and will also allow lawyers to volunteer for extra appointments with the hope of obtaining more trial experience or additional attorney’s fees.   However, most States refuse the appointment of inexperienced lawyers in capital or death penalty cases.

Lawyers in the Public Defender system usually have more experience with criminal cases than do many Court-Appointed Lawyers.  But, the case load of the Public Defender can be burdensome.

Even when the Public Defender system is in play, a conflict of interest may arise between criminal defendants, preventing the lawyers in the Public Defendant’s Office from representing more than one criminal defendant and requiring the court to appoint a private attorney for the other accused criminal defendant.

Not only do convicted criminals complain in their appeals to higher courts of the poor and inadequate quality of legal representation received either from a Public Defender, or from a Court-Appointed Lawyer, or from their own hired private lawyer, but these convicted criminals also file grievance complaints against these lawyers.   Certainly, some times these  complaints have validity.  I can verify that.  But much more frequently, these grievance complaints of the convicted criminal are just “bogus” and time-wasters for the Grievance Committee,  a futile attempt to undo and escape that criminal conviction.

Hopefully, any confusion about Public Defenders and Court-Appointed Lawyers has been resolved.

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3 Responses to “Public Defender or Court-Appointed Lawyer—Confused?”

  1. sadatthesystem/luvthelaw May 1, 2014 at 8:01 pm #

    I figure since neither is privately paid they dont give a shit..but as a family member I feel I should be able to speak to the lawyer but because he is court appointed he doesnt give a shit about my brother or us..but as an educated american who pays taxes..I know court paid or nkt any lawyer has an ethical obligation to represent their client to tbeir fullest ability pro bono or not..they took an oath like doctors..and i will report this lawyer to the bar habe his license pulled and the whole court appointmenship in berks country questioned..cause innocent till proven guilty he took a check..He is supposed to represent him nkt like a guilty or innocent man bjt as a lawyer represent him like a client who deserves just representation in accordance to the laws of this great fucking country that is at war..or shit will go down

    • Frank R. Southers May 2, 2014 at 1:48 pm #

      Certainly, whether appointed as a pubic defender or as an appointed defense counsel or as a privately hired attorney for a criminal defendant, ALL lawyers should represent a client competently and diligently and ethically, making sure than the accused client’s rights are protected. Most lawyers do just that and more—even when knowing the accused client is guilty because the client has admitted guilt to the lawyer. Even then, the accused client is presumed innocent until PROVEN guilty by the Government.
      When competent evidence exists that a lawyer has breached his ethical duty to the criminally accused client, that lawyer should be disciplined, no matter that the lawyer is a public defender, or an appointed defense counsel, or a privately hired lawyer. If you possess such evidence, contact your State Agency in charge of lawyer discipline and file a complaint.

  2. Frank R. Southers September 9, 2014 at 12:31 pm #

    Courts appoint a lawyer (a Public Defender if that appointment system is used or a private attorney if that appointment system is used or a Legal Aid attorney if that appointment system is used) when and if the accused defendant demonstrates he/she cannot afford a lawyer. If no lawyer was appointed at an arraignment, petition the trial court for an appointed lawyer because the accused defendant cannot afford a lawyer. Good luck!