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Public Defender Funding: The Right-to-Counsel Crisis

(525 reviews)

Produced on December 06, 2016

Taught by
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Course Information

Time 1h
Difficulty Intermediate

Course Description

Our Constitution guarantees a right to counsel to criminal defendants who cannot afford an attorney. However, over fifty years after the Supreme Court announced this rule in Gideon v. Wainright, there is nearly a uniform consensus that the country’s public defender systems are failing. In states as disparate as California, Idaho, Louisiana, and New York, people accused of crimes languish in jail for months without an attorney, or are assigned attorneys with caseloads well above accepted ethical norms. The result is a much-maligned system of “meet-em and plead-em,” where defendants take plea bargains after spending as little as a few minutes with their lawyers.

              While there is reasonable agreement on what constitutes basic, effective representation, the harder questions are who is responsible for paying for a constitutional system, and to what degree are these entities accountable for systemic deficiencies. The Supreme Court has made clear that states are ultimately responsible, but without providing specific guidelines on how states are to satisfy the constitutional obligation. In response, states have used a number of approaches that basically divide into two categories: 1) centralized funding from the state budget and 2) delegation of funding responsibilities to counties and localities.  Lawsuits in recent years have challenged both funding schemes, with varying and arguably conflicting results.

              This course examines the theoretical contours of the right to counsel, surveys the current state of public defender delivery systems, and analyzes the extent to which the courts have recognized systemic challenges when states allegedly underfund the public defender function.

Learning Objectives: 

  1. Understand the basic Constitutional requirements that the United States Supreme Court has placed on states to provide public defenders for those unable to afford counsel
  2. Review the most widely accepted metrics for evaluating whether public defender delivery systems are properly funded, including workload and performance standards
  3. Discuss representative lawsuits challenging public defender systems at the state and local level, and compare and contrast the nature of the deficiencies alleged and the legal theories for redress

Credit Information

After completing this course, Lawline will report your attendance information to {{ accredMasterState.state.name }}. Please ensure your license number is filled out in your profile to ensure timely reporting. For more information, see our {{ accredMasterState.state.name }} CLE Requirements page . After completing this course, {{ accredMasterState.state.name }} attorneys self-report their attendance and CLE compliance. For more information on how to report your CLE courses, see our {{ accredMasterState.state.name }} CLE Requirements FAQ .


Brandon Buskey

American Civil Liberties Union

Brandon has been with the ACLU’s Criminal Law Reform Project since 2012. His work focuses on reforming pretrial justice, expanding the right to counsel, juvenile sentencing, and residency restrictions for former sexual offenders. Prior to the ACLU, Brandon worked at the Equal Justice Initiative and the Civil Rights Bureau of the New York State Attorney General’s Office. He is a 2006 graduate of New York University Law School, where he was a Root-Tilden Kern and AnBryce Scholar. Following law school he clerked for the Honorable Janet C. Hall of the United States District Court for the District of Connecticut.


Tobias P.

Excellent job!

Darrell R. J.

Another outstanding CLE course! I’m very grateful that this one has been pre-approved for both Tennessee and Washington state!

Angela L.

Wow! I would hate to be an indigent defendant in Louisiana!

Paul M.

Excellent presentation - great organization and discussion!

Maila P.

Excellent presenter. Obviously knowledgable about the issue.

Matthew D.

This is the best program I have viewed on this platform. He was outstanding.

Venice D.

Excellent presentation.

Sanders M.


MIchael G.

Tis gentleman was fantastic. A natural teacher, eloquent, well spoken, informative, made the topic very interesting. I learned much more from this course than I ever anticipated. Top drawer.

Thomas E. K.

Excellent presentation. I could share some war stories.

Andrew S.

Great program. Interesting and important topic, and the presenter was very clear, direct, and comfortable on camera.

Steven R.

Well done, concise coverage of the topic.

Ruth G.

Very clear presentation.

Stacy A.

Excellent presentation, thanks.

Pat C.

I have worked in this field since the mid-70s ... I couldn't agree more. There IS a crisis.

John C. T.

eye opening lecture

Jason F.

Very well presented and informative.

Vasiliki N.

Fascinating and thought-provoking topic, very good speaker.

Jeff D.

Excellent presentation

Hans A.

extremely articulate speaker

Brad N.

Very good, well organized and just the right level of detail.

Patricia D.

Great instructor. Excellent job!

John G.

Exceptional presentation.

Eric P.

Very interesting presentation.

Christine B.

Many good points.

Gregory M.

This was an outstanding presentation and I am very glad I watched this course.

Angela D.

Excellent presentation of both the big and little pictures including the cause of this crisis and how it is being played out across the country together with discussion of current efforts to combat it Thanks very much!

Michael E.

Well presented.

William H.

Good review of right to counsel issues

Richard C.

This presentation made me aware of all of the unanswered problems that the 6th amendment does not address, and emphasizes the variances that occur from state to state. Excellent presentation.

Skylar B.


Steven T.

Excellent course.

Allan B.

I was glad to learn how various States define and fund indigent representation. Where does right to counsel attach is certainly a key question in this area? It is curious that simply removing the risk of incarceration can remove the right to counsel when the due process and equal protection issues remain.

Robert L.

Very good.

Fatima S.

Great CLE. Inspired me to try to volunteer. Will reach out to ACLU.

James G.

Excellent program.

Steven H.

Very good speaker and topic.

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