What are the Different Types of Appellate Defenders?

Kyla G. Kelim
Kyla G. Kelim
Woman with hand on her hip
Woman with hand on her hip

In every U.S. state criminal system and in the U.S. federal criminal system, a criminal defendant will have rights that extend beyond a conviction in trial court. Those rights will almost always include the appointment of attorneys who assist the client in trying to overturn his conviction in the appeals court if the person cannot afford to hire a lawyer; these appointed attorneys are also known as appellate defenders. Depending on the seriousness of the offense, the defendant's rights may continue to extend into attacks on the state conviction in the federal system. In death penalty cases and other serious felony appeals, the client will often have several appellate defenders during the time the case is pending.

Various types of appellate defenders exist in the federal system and in the individual systems of each state. In each state, a criminal defendant has the option to hire private appellate defenders. More often, appellate defenders are attorneys or entities appointed by the court to represent those who cannot afford to hire a private attorney. Some jurisdictions will have a hybrid of one or more of these programs that might include maintaining a contract with a private law firm to provide appellate defenders, or maintaining a conflict list for the appointment of appellate attorneys to co-defendants.

The U.S. federal penal system maintains a federal defender’s organization that provides an attorney in every case. The federal defender’s office has a branch in each district of the state, typically where the court sits. That office will also maintain a list of private attorneys who have qualified to accept appointed cases if the federal defender has a conflict. Typically, the appointed attorney will represent the client throughout trial and appeal. Some federal defender organizations also have a specific appellate division, and specific appellate defenders will be assigned once the client files a notice of his intent to appeal the court ruling in question.

Some states maintain a statewide indigent defender system, while several maintain a public defender in large cities but not in rural areas. Many states have some looser systems of appointed appellate defenders, either using the services of individual local attorneys or groups of lawyers under contract. The state or local government pays the attorney a fee to perform the necessary appellate work. In many states, the client must repay attorneys' fees paid on his behalf by the government. Typically, the more structured the appellate defenders organization, the higher level of expertise and efficiency the affiliated attorneys will have, benefiting both the defendants and the government entity.

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