The Office of the State Public Defender was created by the California Legislature in 1976 to represent indigent criminal defendants on appeal. The office was formed in response to the need of the state appellate courts, for consistent, high-quality representation for defendants. For the first 13 years of its existence OSPD’s workload was predominantly complex non-capital felonies on appeal to the Courts of Appeal, with a handful of capital murder cases in the mix.
Throughout this decade the number of condemned inmates sitting on Death Row awaiting appointment of counsel, often for years, has steadily increased. Due to this fact, since 1990, OSPD’s mandate from all three branches of government has been redirected toward an exclusive focus upon death penalty cases. We litigate these cases both on appeal and habeas corpus in the California Supreme Court, and in the United States Supreme Court on certiorari petitions.
In response to Phillips v. California, the State Budget expanded the 2020/2021 Budget included $4million General Fund and $3.5 million annually thereafter to expand the OSPD’s mission to include improving the quality of indigent defense services provided by counties. Specifically, these resources are intended to provide training and technical assistance for attorneys providing indigent defense, with the goal of promoting more effective representation statewide. OSPD’s mission was statutorily amended in August 2020. Additionally, the Budget included $10 million one-time General Fund for the Board of State and Community Corrections to administer a pilot program, in consultation with the Office of the State Public Defender, to supplement local funding for indigent criminal defense. This funding will also support the completion of an evaluation to determine the effectiveness of the grants in improving indigent defense services.
The work of the office is often at the cutting edge of criminal law. We have appeared in the California Supreme Court and represent men and women on death row in the United States Supreme Court in a half dozen cases where certiorari review was granted. We have been responsible for major developments in the areas of capital litigation, due process, right to counsel, confessions, jury selection, search and seizure, sentencing and many other issues.
The agency has two regional law offices, located in Oakland and Sacramento.
The office prides itself on the diversity of its lawyers and is striving to preserve and improve upon that diversity. OSPD’s Outreach Directory has become a model for the State of California and has been borrowed and used by numerous government and nongovernment entities in their own outreach efforts. The agency draws its lawyers from many colleges, universities and law schools. The attorneys come from a wide variety of backgrounds: fresh out of law school, from county and federal public defender offices, appellate court staffs, other public interest agencies and groups, and the private sector. State Public Defender alumni include three state court judges, the directors and many of the staff members of the California Appellate Projects, the Central California Appellate Project and First District Appellate Project, as well as many prominent attorneys in the private criminal defense and civil bars.
The work of the Office of the State Public Defender is complex, challenging, and presents a unique personal and professional opportunity for those who choose a career in postconviction criminal defense.