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Law School Case Brief

Polk Cty. v. Dodson - 454 U.S. 312, 102 S. Ct. 445 (1981)

Rule:

The court decides only that a public defender does not act under color of state law when performing a lawyer's traditional functions as counsel to a defendant in a criminal proceeding.

Facts:

Plaintiff was convicted at a state criminal trial for robbery. He subsequently brought an action under 42 U.S.C.S. § 1983 in the United States District Court for the Southern District of Iowa alleging that the public defender, who was a full-time employee of the county, had failed to represent him adequately in an appeal to the state's highest court. The individual asserted that the public defender had deprived him of his right to counsel, subjected to him to cruel and unusual punishment, and had denied him due process of law. The public defender had moved for permission to withdraw as counsel on the ground that the claims asserted on appeal were frivolous. To establish that the public defender had acted "under color of state law," a jurisdictional requisite for a 1983 action, the individual relied on the public defender's employment by the county. In addition to the public offender, the individual also sued the county, its board of supervisors, and its offender advocate. The District Court dismissed the claims against all the defendants, holding that the relevant actions of the public defender had not occurred under color of state law. On appeal, however, the United States Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit reversed.

Issue:

In an action under 42 U.S.C.S. § 1983 by plaintiff individual, who was convicted at a state criminal trial and later alleged that the county employee public defender had failed to adequately represent him, did the public defender act under color of state law?

Answer:

No

Conclusion:

On certiorari, the Supreme Court of the United States held that although the public defender was paid by the state, it was the public defender's function to act in an adversarial manner. Thus, the public defender did not act under color of state law when performing a lawyer's traditional functions as counsel to the convict in the criminal proceeding. Because it was based on such activities, the Court dismissed the § 1983 complaint against the public defender. To the extent that the convict's claims against the other defendants were based on respondeat superior, they failed because § 1983 did not support such a claim. The Court held that a policy of withdrawal from frivolous cases did not violate the Constitution. The Court found that the convict did not allege any unconstitutional action by defendants. Thus, the Court reversed the appellate court's decision. Thus, the Court reversed the appellate court's decision and reinstated the district court's decision to dismiss the convict's action.

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