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decided: December 14, 1981.



Powell, J., delivered the opinion of the Court, in which Burger, C. J., and Brennan, White, Marshall, Rehnquist, Stevens, and O'connor, JJ., joined. Burger, C. J., filed a concurring opinion, post, p. 327. Blackmun, J., filed a dissenting opinion, post, p. 328.

Author: Powell

[ 454 U.S. Page 314]

 JUSTICE POWELL delivered the opinion of the Court.

The question in this case is whether a public defender acts "under color of state law" when representing an indigent defendant in a state criminal proceeding.


This case arose when the respondent Russell Richard Dodson filed a pro se complaint in the United States District Court for the Southern District of Iowa. Dodson brought the action in federal court under 42 U. S. C. § 1983. As the factual basis for his lawsuit Dodson alleged that Martha Shepard, an attorney in the Polk County Offender Advocate's Office, had failed to represent him adequately in an appeal to the Iowa Supreme Court.*fn1

A full-time employee of the county, Shepard had been assigned to represent Dodson in the appeal of a conviction for robbery. After inquiring into the case, however, she moved for permission to withdraw as counsel on the ground that Dodson's claims were wholly frivolous.*fn2 Shepard accompanied her motion with an affidavit explaining this conclusion.

[ 454 U.S. Page 315]

     She also filed a memorandum summarizing Dodson's claims and the supporting legal arguments. On November 9, 1979, the Iowa Supreme Court granted the motion to withdraw and dismissed Dodson's appeal.

In his complaint in the District Court the respondent alleged that Shepard's actions, especially her motion to withdraw, had deprived him of his right to counsel, subjected him to cruel and unusual punishment, and denied him due process of law.*fn3 He sought injunctive relief as well as damages in the amount of $175,000. To establish that Shepard acted "under color of state law," a jurisdictional requisite for a § 1983 action, Dodson relied on her employment by the county. Dodson also sued Polk County, the Polk County Offender Advocate, and the Polk County Board of Supervisors. He alleged that the Offender Advocate and the Board of Supervisors had established the rules and procedures that Shepard was bound to follow in handling criminal appeals.

The District Court dismissed Dodson's claims against all defendants. 483 F.Supp. 347 (1979). It held that the relevant actions by Shepard had not occurred under color of state law. Canvassing the leading authorities, it reasoned that a public defender owes a duty of undivided loyalty to his client. A public defender therefore could not be sued as an agent of the State. The District Court dismissed the Offender Advocate from the suit on the same theory. It also held

[ 454 U.S. Page 316]

     that Dodson's complaint failed to allege the requisite personal involvement to state a § 1983 claim against Polk County and the Board of Supervisors.

The Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit reversed. 628 F.2d 1104 (1980). Like the District Court, it assumed that a public defender owed his client the same responsibility as any other attorney. In its view, however, the "dispositive point" was that Iowa Offender Advocates were "employees of the County," which was "merely a creature of the State." Whether public defenders received instructions from county officials was "beside the point." "Public defenders receive their power not because they are selected by their clients, but because they are employed by the County to represent a certain class of clients, who likely have little or no choice in selecting the lawyer who will defend them." Id., at 1106. In holding as it did on this issue, the court recognized that its decision conflicted with the holdings of a number of other Courts of Appeals. Reasoning that Dodson's pro se complaint should be liberally construed, the court also ordered reinstatement of the § 1983 claims against the Offender Advocate and the Board of Supervisors. The question of their involvement was left for factual development in the District Court. In addition, the court ordered that Dodson be given an opportunity on remand to state his claim against the county with greater specificity. Finally, the court rejected the argument that a public defender should enjoy the same immunity provided to judges and prosecutors. It held that the defendants were entitled to a defense of "good faith," but not of "absolute," immunity.

One member of the panel filed a dissent. The dissent argued that a person acts under color of state law only when exercising powers created by the authority of the State. In this case, it reasoned, the alleged wrongs were not made possible only because the defendant was a public defender. In

[ 454 U.S. Page 317]

     essence the complaint asserted an ordinary malpractice claim, which would be equally maintainable against a retained attorney or appointed counsel. The dissent also argued that public defenders should be entitled to absolute immunity from suit.

We granted certiorari to resolve the division among the Courts of Appeals over whether a public defender acts under color of state law when providing representation to an indigent client.*fn4 450 U.S. 963 (1981). We now reverse.


In United States v. Classic, 313 U.S. 299, 326 (1941), this Court held that a person acts under color of state law only when exercising power "possessed by virtue of state law and made possible only because the wrongdoer is clothed with the

[ 454 U.S. Page 318]

     authority of state law."*fn5 In this case the Offender Advocate for Polk County assigned Martha Shepard to represent Russell Dodson in the appeal of his criminal conviction. This assignment entailed functions and obligations in no way dependent on state authority. From the moment of her appointment, Shepard became Dodson's lawyer, and Dodson became Shepard's client. Except for the source of payment, their relationship became identical to that existing between any other lawyer and client. "Once a lawyer has undertaken the representation of an accused, the duties and obligations are the same whether the lawyer is privately retained, appointed, or serving in a legal aid or defender program." ABA Standards for Criminal Justice 4-3.9 (2d ed. 1980).*fn6

Within the context of our legal system, the duties of a defense lawyer are those of a personal counselor and advocate. It is often said that lawyers are "officers of the court." But the Courts of Appeals are agreed that a lawyer representing a client is not, by virtue of being an officer of the court, a state actor "under color of state law" within the meaning of § 1983.*fn7 In our system a defense lawyer characteristically opposes the designated representatives of the State. The system assumes that adversarial testing will ultimately advance the public interest in truth and fairness. But it posits that a defense lawyer best serves the public, not by acting on behalf of the State or in concert with it, but rather by advancing

[ 454 U.S. Page 319]

     "the undivided interests of his client."*fn8 This is essentially a private function, traditionally filled by retained counsel, for which state office and authority are not needed.*fn9


The respondent argues that a public defender's employment relationship with the State, rather than his function, should determine whether he acts under color of state law. We take a different view.


In arguing that the employment relationship establishes that the public defender acts under color of state law, Dodson relies heavily on two cases in which this Court assumed that physicians, whose relationships with their patients have not traditionally depended on state authority, could be held liable under § 1983. See O'Connor v. Donaldson, 422 U.S. 563 (1975); Estelle v. Gamble, 429 U.S. 97 (1976). These cases, he argues, are analytically identical to this one. Like the physicians in O'Connor and Estelle, a public defender is paid by the State. Further, like the institutionalized patients in

[ 454 U.S. Page 320]

     those cases, an indigent convict is unable to choose the professional who will render him traditionally private services. These factors, it is argued, establish that public defenders -- like physicians in state hospitals -- act under color of state law and are amenable to suit under § 1983.

In our view O'Connor and Estelle are distinguishable from this case. O'Connor involved claims against a psychiatrist who served as the superintendent at a state mental hospital. Although a physician with traditionally private obligations to his patients, he was sued in his capacity as a state custodian and administrator. Unlike a lawyer, the administrator of a state hospital owes no duty of "undivided loyalty" to his patients. On the contrary, it is his function to protect the interest of the public as well as that of his wards. Similarly, Estelle involved a physician who was the medical director of the Texas Department of Corrections and also the chief medical officer of a prison hospital. He saw his patients in a custodial as well as a medical capacity.

Because of their custodial and supervisory functions, the state-employed doctors in O'Connor and Estelle faced their employer in a very different posture than does a public defender. Institutional physicians assume an obligation to the mission that the State, through the institution, attempts to achieve. With the public defender it is different. As argued in the dissenting opinion in the Court of Appeals, it is the function of the public defender to enter "not guilty" pleas, move to suppress State's evidence, object to evidence at trial, cross-examine State's witnesses, and make closing arguments ...

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