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History

The Constitution of the United States, which was first adopted in 1787, is the supreme law of the land. It created three branches of government—executive, legislative, and judicial—to act as checks upon one another. It also stipulated that “[t]he judicial Power of the United States, shall be vested in one supreme Court, and in such inferior Courts as the Congress from time to time ordain and establish.” The Supreme Court was created by the Judiciary Act of September 24, 1789. The Supreme Court is the highest court of the land and rules on issues related to the U.S. Constitution. The Supreme Court is made up of nine justices, appointed by the president with consent of the Senate, who review selected decisions made at the state level. The Circuit Court of Appeals deals with appeals of decisions made by the district courts, and reviews judgments of lower courts. The district courts are the third level of the federal court system, servicing approximately 100 zones, or districts, across the country. Each state also has its own judicial system, which is separate from the federal system. Most criminal and civil cases are tried in state courts. These cases can move on to a federal court if they are related to an issue concerning the U.S. Constitution. Most cities also have municipal courts to handle minor cases.

The judicial system at all levels employs prosecuting attorneys to try cases against those accused in criminal and civil matters. These attorneys, as well as criminal defense lawyers, have been key players in the criminal justice system ever since the first courts were established in the United States.

The Sixth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution guarantees that the accused “shall enjoy the right…to have the Assistance of Counsel for his defense.” This protection was offered to those in federal proceedings from the earliest days of our nation (regardless of whether or not they could afford to hire an attorney), but these rights were not often extended to defendants at the state and local levels. “Well into the 20th century,” according to the National Legal Aid & Defender Association, “most states relied only on the volunteer pro bono efforts of lawyers to provide defense for poor people accused of even the most serious crimes.” In 1853, the Indiana Supreme Court become one of the first non-federal judicial entities that “recognized a right to an attorney at public expense for an indigent person accused of crime, grounded in the principles of a civilized society, not constitutional or statutory law.” Despite this ruling, pro bono services, along with private programs such as the New York Legal Aid Society (founded in 1896), were the only source of legal services for the poor until the early 20th century. In 1914, the first government-funded public defender office opened in Los Angeles, California.

At the state level, the introduction of public defender services came about much more slowly. In 1932, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that legal counsel was required in all state capital proceedings, but in 1942, it declined to grant indigent defendants the Sixth Amendment right to counsel in state felony proceedings. It was not until 1963 that the Supreme Court established that defendants had the right to counsel in virtually all state criminal proceedings. As a result, the number of public defender offices began to expand, and the profession grew rapidly.