The Public Defender provides constitutionally mandated legal representation to indigent criminal defendants and juveniles in the Superior Court of the County as well as in State and federal appellate courts. The Department strives to defend the liberties of indigent clients, protect their rights, and advocate for clients’ access to resources in order to be productive members of the community.
The Los Angeles County Public Defender has 36 office locations throughout the county. Integral to supporting the department’s mission is a team of more than 1,100 employees — including more than 700 attorneys, as well as paralegals, investigators, psychiatric social workers, and administrative/support staff.
Clara Shortridge Foltz, the first woman to practice law on the West Coast, recognized the inequities in the justice system. She saw the droves of people without money appear in court unrepresented.
“Justice should be free; but it is not,” Foltz argued. “If the accused has money he must pay for his defense, no matter what hardship it may involve. He must pay or go without counsel and, therefore, without justice.”
Foltz sought to change all that. After all, this is the woman who in 1878 single-handedly persuaded California’s governor to sign a bill that for the first time allowed women attorneys, setting the stage for her pioneering post. During the World’s Columbian Exposition in 1893, she presented her concept for a public defender system. The idea did not gain traction. After continuing the fight upon her return, the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors eventually saw its value. In 1914, the world’s first public defender’s office opened in Los Angeles County.
Nearly a half-century later, in 1963, the U.S. Supreme Court caught up with Foltz and Los Angeles when it unanimously ruled that states are required under the U.S. Constitution’s Sixth Amendment to provide counsel in criminal cases for defendants unable to pay their own attorneys.
In addition to being the oldest, the LA County Public Defender has become the world’s largest public defender. It’s highly diverse staff includes more than 700 attorneys, and a support staff of paralegals, investigators, social workers and secretaries—all dedicated to the representation of indigent clients.
Carrying on Foltz’s legacy, the LA County Public Defender is a justice reform advocate in Sacramento and Washington, for adults and youths. Recently, the Juvenile Division led the effort to get SB 395 signed into law. The 2018 law provides that barring circumstances of imminent bodily harm or damage to property, youths 15 years and under must speak with an attorney before they can legally waive their Miranda rights and be interrogated. It is the first such law in the U.S.
A model of excellence, its work is reflected in many honors including the 2017 Silver Eagle Award for an innovative program that benefits incarcerated mentally ill people, given by LA County’s Quality and Productivity Commission, and the 2004 Program of Year Award for Juvenile Division’s holistic approach to legal services for youths, given by the California Public Defenders’ Association. National leaders including then-U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder have visited the Office to learn the methods of delivering high-quality legal services to indigent clients. The Office has also hosted foreign delegations from Ireland to Taiwan to Iraq.
Back in 1965, the value of the Public Defender was reflected in the Reader’s Digest, in a news story about an indigent, unemployed bartender named Alfino O. Rossi who was tried for killing a high-profile professional boxer two years earlier. The LA County Public Defender found that Rossi had acted in self-defense and the argument resulted in a jury acquittal.
“When a plan nobody gets a defense only a rich somebody could buy,” Rossi said, “you got a real great country.”
In a resolution signed by then-California State Senator, now LA County Board of Supervisors’ Chair Sheila Kuehl, the trailblazing work of the state’s first woman lawyer was publicly acknowledged. On Feb. 8, 2002, the Criminal Courts Building of the Superior Court at 210 W. Temple St. was rededicated in honor of Clara Shortridge Foltz and renamed the Clara Shortridge Foltz Criminal Justice Center.