public defender

Primary tabs

A public defender is a criminal defendant lawyer for the impoverished. A public defender is part of the legislative public service program as a staff attorney. The court appoints the public defenders to indigent defendants who require representation. Public defenders are staffed and paid by either the county, state, or federal government to represent defendants. Public defenders are commonly abbreviated as P.D. and shortened to defender.

The state must ensure that all defendants are not denied their inherent rights under the Sixth Amendment of the United States Constitution. These rights include the right to be represented by an attorney. Generally, the criminal defendant who seeks services from the public defender does not get to choose which public defender will represent them. In most cases, the judge determines which public defender will represent each criminal defendant. In the decision, the judge accounts for the logistics of the court, such as who is available and when the proceedings will take place.

For public defenders, there are two categories of representation: vertical and horizontal representation. 

  • Vertical representation refers to the typical representation a criminal defendant would expect from any attorney. In a vertical representation, the public defender handles the entire proceeding from beginning to end. 
  • Horizontal representation is when multiple public defenders represent the criminal defendant for the different phases of the trial. For instance, one public defender will be in charge of plea bargaining, while another will represent the defendant in the actual trial if there is no settlement. A concern with horizontal representation is that the lack of communication between the public defenders may result in confusion and inefficiency. However, at least in theory, the different public defenders are supposed to leave notes in the file regarding the status and their work on the case.

[Last updated in January of 2024 by the Wex Definitions Team]