Free Justice: A History of the Public Defender in Twentieth-Century America

Univ. of North Carolina. Jun. 2020. 286p. ISBN 9781469661650. pap. $26.95. law
Public defenders now form part of the American way of life, having grown roots in the nation’s legal culture as central to the daily operations of its criminal courts, argues Mayeux (law, Vanderbilt Univ.). How their publicly funded legal assistance became commonplace is what she seeks to explain with insights into the contested meanings of democracy and liberalism. The story is one of change over time, in not only American legal culture but national identity as elite lawyers, especially during the 1950s–70s, reshaped public opinion. The U.S. Supreme Court’s 1963 decision in Gideon v. Wainwright, establishing criminal defendants’ constitutional right to court-appointed defense counsel, marked a watershed moment in the current of beliefs and values communicating how the nation should ideally think of itself in relation to its justice system. The shift was neither instant nor easy, Mayeux demonstrates. Persistently contested, the concept of public legal assistance succeeded to the degree it has in large part because of periodic redefinition of the project and its goals, she concludes.
VERDICT This foray into the ideas that shape and sustain U.S. law and society offers significant inroads for readers interested in the progress and pitfalls of the U.S. criminal justice system, and how incidental and intentional actions affect historical developments.
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