Free Justice

A History of the Public Defender in Twentieth-Century America

By Sara Mayeux

286 pp., 6.125 x 9.25, notes, bibl., index

  • Hardcover ISBN: 978-1-4696-5602-1
    Published: June 2020
  • Paperback ISBN: 978-1-4696-6165-0
    Published: June 2020
  • E-book EPUB ISBN: 978-1-4696-5603-8
    Published: April 2020
  • E-book PDF ISBN: 979-8-8908-5748-4
    Published: April 2020

Justice, Power, and Politics

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Awards & distinctions

2020 David J. Langum, Sr. Prize in American Legal History, Langum Charitable Trust

2021 Vanderbilt University Chancellor's Award for Research

Every day, in courtrooms around the United States, thousands of criminal defendants are represented by public defenders--lawyers provided by the government for those who cannot afford private counsel. Though often taken for granted, the modern American public defender has a surprisingly contentious history--one that offers insights not only about the "carceral state," but also about the contours and compromises of twentieth-century liberalism.

First gaining appeal amidst the Progressive Era fervor for court reform, the public defender idea was swiftly quashed by elite corporate lawyers who believed the legal profession should remain independent from the state. Public defenders took hold in some localities but not yet as a nationwide standard. By the 1960s, views had shifted. Gideon v. Wainwright enshrined the right to counsel into law and the legal profession mobilized to expand the ranks of public defenders nationwide. Yet within a few years, lawyers had already diagnosed a "crisis" of underfunded, overworked defenders providing inadequate representation--a crisis that persists today. This book shows how these conditions, often attributed to recent fiscal emergencies, have deep roots, and it chronicles the intertwined histories of constitutional doctrine, big philanthropy, professional in-fighting, and Cold War culture that made public defenders ubiquitous but embattled figures in American courtrooms.

About the Author

Sara Mayeux is associate professor of law at Vanderbilt University.
For more information about Sara Mayeux, visit the Author Page.


“A definitive history of this important yet conflicted institution. . . . Taking readers from the Progressive Era to the height of the Cold War, Mayeux shows the stages by which influential reformers crafted our current indigent-defense system.”—The Nation

"An outstanding account of what the defender became and how it got there. In telling this story, Mayeux also provides an exceptional account of the growth and evolution of the practice of law in America — one that any lawyer interested in the history of their profession should read."--Criminal Law and Criminal Justice Books

“Mayeux provides a historical example of a community-based public defender’s office that sought justice outside the courtroom. . . . [S]he leaves readers with a provocative thought: If we moved beyond adversarialism, what kind of legal representation could defendants receive?” —New York Review of Books

"This is an excellent work of legal history that speaks to the present as we systemically think about the connections between poverty, race, incarceration, and the criminal justice system."—Felice Batlan, author of Women and Justice for the Poor: A History of Legal Aid, 1863–1945

"Mayeux reveals core features of American political culture and political economy across a changing twentieth century. This is a brilliant book that should be read by everyone interested in the dimensions of the contemporary American legal regime."—Hendrik Hartog, Class of 1921 Bicentennial Professor in the History of American Law and Liberty, Emeritus, Princeton University

"Sara Mayeux brilliantly uses the contested history of public defenders as a lens to examine and illuminate American conceptions of democracy, liberalism, socialism, and even our broader political culture.  Free Justice marks the dazzling debut of a supremely gifted legal historian."—Justin Driver, author of The Schoolhouse Gate: Public Education, the Supreme Court, and the Battle for the American Mind