The Role of Women In Public Defense


From Right to Counsel:

March is Women’s History Month, and March 18th marks the 57th Anniversary of the landmark decision in Gideon v. Wainwright, in which the United States Supreme Court unanimously declared the “obvious truth” that “lawyers in criminal court are necessities, not luxuries,” and that the state must provide a lawyer to anyone whose liberty is at stake and who cannot afford one. These commemorations have more in common than first meets the eye: women have had a hand in the creation and strengthening of our public defense system, and women are increasingly in need of effective public defense themselves. As such, this March to honor this right and those who protect it, the Right to Counsel National Campaign (R2C) and the Justice Programs Office are celebrating public defenders and the courageous work they do all month long as part of R2C’s #TriviaTuesday.


Our first spotlight of the month was on the impactful yet under-recognized Clara Shortridge Foltz, whom we should thank for the concept of our modern-day public defender system. The first woman to practice law on the West Coast, Foltz authored a bill that changed one of the legal requirements for becoming a lawyer in California from “white male citizen” to “any citizen or person.” She did not stop there, however.


Because defendants with means would rarely agree to female representation, Foltz represented quite a few indigent defendants. Dissatisfied with the inequities she observed, Foltz created the concept of the public defender system to balance the public prosecutor. In 1893, 70 years before the Supreme Court decided Gideon v. Wainwright, she presented the concept of public defense at the Chicago World’s Fair, arguing that the right to a presumption of innocence was only possible with competent legal advice. Due to her efforts, Los Angeles opened the nation’s first public defender office in 1913, and the “Foltz Defender Bill” was enacted state-wide in 1921. Read more about Foltz and the women of public defense in this month’s R2C blog and follow along on Twitter as we and other organizations across the US commemorate the anniversary and the right to counsel by celebrating #PublicDefenseDay #PublicDefenderDay #GideonAnniversary.

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