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Law and History Review

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public defenders, municipal administration, progressive reform


Law | Legal Profession | Public Law and Legal Theory


Vercoe's self-description as a courtroom "fighter" illuminates public defenders' professional identity in the United States in the decades after the criminal courts had developed into a modem bureaucracy, but before the Warren Court constitutionalized criminal procedure. Historians have characterized lawyering for the poor as outside the mainstream of adversar- ial legal culture, describing a "two-tiered legal system" in which lawyers celebrated courtroom combat on behalf of paying clients but relegated the indigent to a lesser form of advocacy that valorized "compromise." Comporting with this characterization, legal scholars have portrayed early public defenders as "assembly-line" workers who conducted little factual investigation and developed lawyering techniques centered around "pressuring [each] defendant to enter a plea," because they worked within an "ideological framework" that defined poor people as "guilty and unwor- thy" of adversarial trials. Studies of indigent defense in the first half of the twentieth century have provided important insight into the origins of the modem plea bargaining regime. Yet characterizing early public defend- ers as ideologically committed to nonadversarial process for the poor over- looks the extent to which public defenders such as Vercoe were shaped by the larger legal culture, shared in its veneration of adversarialism, and emphasized trial advocacy as the core of their own lawyerly expertise.

Established in 1914 to provide free legal representation for the indigent, primarily in criminal cases, the Los Angeles County Public Defender was the nation's first such municipal office. Before the 1960s expansion of the constitutional right to counsel, there were only a handful of local public defenders nationwide, many of them in California. As one of the office's longest-serving incumbents, Vercoe helped to cement the public defender's place within the Los Angeles civic bureaucracy and to develop a professional identity for this now familiar, but then novel type of lawyer: the urban public defender. He helped to launch the office as part of its original group of deputy defenders, and then served as its third chief defender from 1927 to 1946, a longer tenure than either of his predecessors.



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