County of Marin - News Releases - National Public Defense Week

For Immediate Release
March 17, 2017

Public Defender Marks Gideon Decision Anniversary

March 18 noted as National Public Defense Day in honor of ‘obscure convict’

San Rafael, CA – Recently, Marin County Public Defender Jose Varela was asked by his high school intern in a most respectful way, “Who was the rude guy who started the public defender system?”

Deborah Lewis, Deputy Public Defender IV, speaks to a group of probationers.Deborah Lewis, Deputy Public Defender IV, speaks to a group about expungement dismissals.
Yes, Varela answered, Clarence Earl Gideon was quite a character. An alcoholic who divorced four times, Gideon would study law while incarcerated for a crime he did not commit and eventually persuade, through facts and moral force, the United States Supreme Court in 1963 to create an expansive right to counsel in Gideon v. Wainwright. 

Speaking of Gideon, then-U.S. Attorney General Robert Kennedy wrote on November 1, 1963: “If an obscure Florida convict named Clarence Earl Gideon had not sat down in prison with a pencil and paper to write a letter to the Supreme Court, and if the Supreme Court had not taken the trouble to look at the merits in that one crude petition among all the bundles of mail it must receive every day, the vast machinery of American law would have gone on functioning undisturbed. But Gideon did write that letter; the court did look into his case; he was retried with the help of competent defense counsel; found not guilty and released from prison after two years of punishment for a crime he did not commit. And the whole course of legal history has been changed.”

National Public Defense Day is marked annually on March 18, the day the Gideon v. Wainwright decision came down. It was on that day in 1963 that the right to counsel was deemed “fundamental and necessary” by the nation’s highest court. March 13-18 is National Public Defense Week.

“It is a day to honor the power of the individual in the face of injustice,” Varela said. “But it is also a time to remember that such legal decisions also say much about a nation that holds such values.”  

National Public Defense Day is celebrated with quiet appreciation by public defenders, legal aid lawyers, investigators, and support staff who play an integral part in the representation of indigent clients in criminal and civil courts. 

In Marin County, the Office of the Public Defender staff has the respect of the community because of its diligence and dedication, Varela said. In the 2015-2016 fiscal year, his staff won 101 expungement dismissals for clients who successfully completed their probation requirements. The department is on pace to exceed that number for the 2016-2017 fiscal year with 76 expungement dismissals thus far. 

The staff regularly participates in educational panels about immigration, a subject receiving extraordinary attention in recent months. Most recently, Varela and other staff members have spoken before the Marin Immigrant Safety Coalition, the Marin County Office of Education and the nonprofit Alcohol Justice.

“Our success as a legal community resource for the poor and those unable to afford counsel is because of a community that supports our providing such necessary services,” he said. “Our staff is incredibly committed to our community. Giving of their time to do community outreach events, meeting with families and students to do ‘know your rights’ presentation, preparing motions and trials to defend clients in courts — all of these efforts embody the right of counsel that Gideon sought in his case.”  


Jose Varela
Public Defender
County of Marin

Marin County Civic Center
3501 Civic Center Drive
Suite 139
San Rafael, CA 94903
(415) 473-6321
Email: Jose Varela
Public Defender website