Federal Public Defenders provide legal representation to defendants in the federal criminal courts!

In major criminal proceedings, the accused has the right to be represented by counsel under the United States Constitution’s Sixth Amendment. The federal judiciary has traditionally been assigning counsel in federal court prosecutions for persons who cannot afford legal representation.

There was no authority to compensate designated counsel for their services or legal fees before the Criminal Justice Act (CJA) enactment. Instead, federal judges relied on lawyers’ professional obligations to provide pro bono public representation to defendants who could not afford counsel.


Criminal Justice Act

The CJA allowed for the repayment of reasonable out-of-pocket fees and the payment of professional and investigative services required for a proper defense.

The Criminal Justice Act was adopted in 1964 to develop a complete system for appointing and funding lawyers to represent defendants in federal criminal trials who are financially unable to obtain counsel.

While it did provide some compensation for assigned counsel (CJA panel attorneys), it did so at a significantly lower rate than what they would receive from privately hired clients.

The CJA was revised in 1970 to allow each district to create federal defender organizations as an institutional resource for supplying defense counsel in districts (or combinations of nearby districts) where at least 200 people require an appointment of counsel each year.

There are 81 approved federal defender organizations fifty years after the CJA was enacted. They have almost 3,700 paralegals, support staff, investigators, and lawyers, and they serve 91 of the 94 federal judicial districts. Community defender organizations and federal public defender groups are the two categories of federal defender organizations.

Most of those tried in the United States Courts (federal) is represented by federal defender organizations and more than 12,000 independent “panel attorneys” who take CJA assignments each year. In the four districts where a federal defender group does not serve, CJA panel attorneys take assignments in all CJA cases.

Panel attorneys are often assigned between 30% and 40% of CJA cases in districts with a defender organization, typically where a conflict or other issue prevents federal defender counsel. Approximately 60% of CJA appointments go to federal defenders across the country, with 40% going to the CJA panel.

How are federal public defenders paid?

Panel attorneys are now paid hourly wages of $148 in non-capital trials and a maximum hourly charge of $190 in capital trials. These prices apply to jobs completed on or after February 15, 2019. Both legal salaries and office overhead are included in the pricing.

In addition, there are case upper limits that limit total panel attorney remuneration for specific types of counsel (for example, felonies are $11,500, misdemeanors are $3,300, and appeals are $8,200).

Higher amounts may be certified as necessary to give fair compensation by the circuit judge or district judge if the representation is at the court of appeals and the circuit’s chief judge approves.

federal public defenders

Federal public defender organization

A federal public defender organization is a federal agency with federal employees on staff. The court of appeals of the ninth circuit court in which the organization is located appoints the top federal public defender for a four-year term.

The federal public defender is best protected from the court’s participation, before which the defender primarily practices by placing this recruitment authority in the court of appeals instead of the district court.

Some of the highly-rated federal public defender districts include the northern district of California and the western district of Washington.

Community defender organizations

Community defender organizations are state-chartered non-profit defense counsel organizations. So, Community defense groups get sustaining and initial grants from the federal judiciary to finance their operations when they are identified in the CJA plan for the district in which they operate.

A board of directors oversees community defender groups, a division or branch of a parent non-profit legal services business representing the indigent in the state, county, and municipal courts.

The US Judicial Conference establishes guidelines and policies for the administration of the CJA, makes legislative recommendations to Congress, authorizes funding requests and spending plans for the defender program as a whole, and grants and budgets for each defender organization through its Standing Committee on Defender Services. The Judicial Conference’s rules and procedures for administering the CJA are outlined in its Rules for Implementing the CJA and Related Statutes.

The Regulatory Office of the United States Courts, which is under the direction and supervision of the Judicial Conference, oversees the expenditure of funds allocated by Congress. Furthermore, it manages the panel attorney and federal defender programs on a national level is responsible for training related to providing representation under the CJA, and offers policy, legal, fiscal, and management advice to the Conference and its committees, defenders, judges, and their staff. The Defender Services Office of the judicial branch of the United States Courts provides program assistance for the CJA.

The job role of assistant federal defendant

In the United States District Court and the United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit, Assistant Federal Defenders represent clients and indigent persons facing post-conviction processes or charged with criminal offenses.

Managing cases at various stages of litigation; preparing motions, pleadings, and briefs; appearing on behalf of the client in court hearings and other related proceedings; representing individuals in federal habeas corpus proceedings under 28 USC 2255and 2254; designing litigation schemes; meeting with experts, clients, family members, and witnesses; and other duties as assigned.

The Federal Public Defender’s Office is an equal opportunity employer that values diversity.

Requirements to be an assistant federal public defender

Graduate of an authorized law school and a participant in the good standing of a state bar are required for this position. This position requires five years of trial experience, outstanding writing abilities, and extensive appellate expertise. The ability to manage a large caseload, work flexible work hours, have a reputation for reliability, travel, work in a collaborative atmosphere, and have good prioritization and organizing skills are all required for this position. Attorneys for the Federal Public Defender Service are not permitted to practice law privately.

Public Defender Exit Options

After a successful career as a federal public defender there are amazing opportunities in private practice as a criminal defense attorney. Whether you work for yourself in a solo firm or as part of a large law firm the opportunities are everywhere.

Another option is in academia. Federal public defenders are sought after to teach at secondary schools throughout the United States. Whether you are looking to teach criminal procedure or constitutional law law school opportunities are available.

federal public defender organization


The Federal Public Defender offers legal representation to persons accused of a federal crime who cannot afford an attorney. In addition, you will need a Federal Public Defender if you are being investigated for a federal crime or a law enforcement agency has approached you about a federal inquiry.

You may also require the services of a Federal Public Defender if you have been summoned to testify in US District Court. You have the right to talk with an attorney before being interrogated, and you also have the right to have an attorney present throughout the interrogation. If a federal law enforcement agency contacts you, tell them you want to speak with an attorney.

Regardless how you federal public defender career unfolds there are many opportunities after you choose to exit that career role. Opportunities in private practice and academia are plentiful.


Q1. What is the salary of an Assistant Federal Public Defender?

As of December 27, 2021, the typical Assistant Federal Public Defender pay is $64,994, with a salary range of $54,736 to $69,539. Salary ranges depend on various factors, including certifications, schooling, subsidiary talents, and years of experience in your field.

Q2. Is the federal public defender Office a part of the Justice Department?

No, federal public defendants are federal employees, but they do not work for the US President or Justice department. The Executive branch, which includes the President, the Department of Justice, Immigration and Customs Enforcement, the Department of Homeland Security, the military, and the Legislative branch, is constitutionally independent and coequal (Congress and their staff.) However, being a part of the United States Courts has certain unique and intriguing constitutional issues that prospective employees should be informed of.

Q.3 What types of cases does the federal public defendant specialize in?

If a client qualifies, a federal public defender will represent them in any federal criminal issue. For example, firearms-related charges, bank robbery, sex crimes, offenses committed on tribal land, drugs and drugs conspiracy charges. Others include; charges involving state security and terrorism, federal probation violations, fraud and financial charges, specialty courts, and protestor cases related to federal properties are just a few of the charges and incidents we represent clients for.

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