In the famous 1963 case of Gideon vs. Wainwright, the Supreme Court unanimously held that the state must provide lawyers for those charged with serious crimes who cannot afford them. The court recognized that “lawyers in criminal courts are necessities, not luxuries” and that a fair trial was impossible without counsel for the defense.
Gideon marked the culmination of a long legal struggle that had its origins in California when the first female lawyer in the state proposed establishing the position of public defender. Seventy years earlier, Clara Foltz had called for a state officer equivalent to the public prosecutor in status and resources, whose job would be equally important – perhaps more important because the public defender would protect the innocent, the highest function of the law.
San Francisco had one of the first such offices in the state, and in the nation. But today its mission is threatened by Mayor Gavin Newsom’s proposed 25 percent budget cut.