Polk County v. Dodson

LOCATION:Tyler Independent School District

DOCKET NO.: 80-824
DECIDED BY: Burger Court (1981-1986)
LOWER COURT: United States Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit

CITATION: 454 US 312 (1981)
ARGUED: Oct 13, 1981
DECIDED: Dec 14, 1981

Edwin S. Kneedler – amicus curiae supporting Respondent
John D. Hudson – on behalf of the Respondent
Norman G. Jesse – on behalf of the Petitioners

Facts of the case


Media for Polk County v. Dodson

Audio Transcription for Oral Argument – October 13, 1981 in Polk County v. Dodson

Audio Transcription for Opinion Announcement – December 14, 1981 in Polk County v. Dodson

Warren E. Burger:

Justice Powel will announce the judgment and opinion of the Court in Polk County against Dodson.

Lewis F. Powell, Jr.:

This case is here on a writ of certiorari to Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit. The question is whether a public defender acts under color of state law while representing an indigent defendant in a state criminal proceeding.

Respondent, Dodson was represented on his appeal from a state criminal conviction by Martha Shepard. She was a lawyer employed fulltime in the public defendant’s office maintained by Polk in County, Iowa. Dodson claimed that Shepard have failed to represent him adequately.

To maintain his case under 42 U.S.C. 1983, the plaintiff must allege that he was harmed by action occurring under color of state law, the criteria for identifying such action which stated the — in a decision of this Court called United States against Classic.

That case establishes that a person acts under color of state law only when exercising power and here I quote, “Possessed by virtue of state law and made possible only because the wrongdoer is clothed with the authority of state law.”

The Court of Appeals relying on the fact that Shepard was employed and paid by the state found there was action under color of state law.

We think however, the fact that a public defender is paid by the state is not controlling from the time of her assignment to represent Dodson.

Shephard assumed the functions of any other defense lawyer.

Traditionally, the relationship between lawyer and client is a private one.

In representing in one accused crime, the loyalty of a public defender is solely to his or her client.

The role of a public defendant is adversarial to the state.

The public defender opposes the prosecution — the prosecuting attorney in court, objects when proper to state evidence and defends the rights of his client.

There is no color of state law in these activities.

For these reasons we reversed the decision of the Court of Appeals.

The Chief Justice has filed a concurring opinion and Justice Blackman has filed a dissent.

Warren E. Burger:

Well, thank you, Justice Powel.