Everyone is entitled to have counsel:
But in a 1975 case, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that they can also refuse counsel. In legal terms, it’s called pro se, which means “for oneself” in Latin.
“Most people have no idea the amount of work that goes into a case,” said Kenneth Nunn, a University of Florida law professor. “The odds are that a person who is pro se is going to just wing it. . .The process within the court is really tangled and bogged down because you’re dealing with people who don’t understand what the procedures are.”
In Alabama, in criminal cases, the Defendant is entitled to counsel if the court determines they are indigent. This Constitutional right of counsel for the indigent was determined by Gideon v. Wainright in 1963. In Gideon, the Supreme Court of the United States recognized the “obvious truth” that “any person haled into court, who is too poor to hire a lawyer, cannot be assured a fair trial unless counsel is provided for him.”
At present, in Alabama, we have three systems operating, depending on the county. Some counties operate a distinct public defender’s office. There are full-time employees of that office; those attorneys do nothing else. In other counties, private attorneys are assigned cases by a judge; those attorneys bill the state at a statutory rate (presently $70.00 per hour). In still in others, the court system will pay certain private attorneys a flat fee to provide a certain percentage of all indigent cases within that court.
Following the Supreme Court’s decision in Gideon, states began to devise systems for providing counsel to indigent defendants charged with crimes. Determining who was too poor to hire a lawyer was something left to the individual states. Alabama code defines an indigent defendant as
Any person involved in a criminal or juvenile proceeding in the trial or appellate courts of the state for which proceeding representation by counsel is constitutionally required or is authorized or required by statute or court rule, including parents of children during the termination of parental rights hearings, who under oath or affirmation states that he or she is unable to pay for his or her representation, and who is found by the court to be financially unable to pay for his or her representation based on a written findings as further provided below that the person is indigent based on one of the following criteria: (a) A person that has an income level at or below 125 percent of the United States poverty level as defined by the most recently revised poverty income guidelines published by the United States Department of Health and Human Services, unless the court determines that the person is able to pay for the cost of an attorney to represent the person on the pending case, or (b) A person that has an income level greater than 125 percent, but at or below 200 percent, of the most recently revised poverty income guidelines published by the United States Department of Health and Human Services and the court makes a written finding that not providing indigent defense services on the pending case would cause the person substantial hardship; or (c) A person that has an income level greater than 200 percent of the most recently revised poverty income guidelines published by the United States Department of Health and Human Services and the person is charged with a felony, and the court makes a written finding that not providing indigent defense services would cause the person substantial hardship.
There is certainly a stigma to appointed attorneys; however, it has been my experience that some of the best and most zealous criminal defense do appointed work.