2300 Tulare Street, Suite 330
Fresno, CA 93721
Toll Free: 855-656-4360
TEL: 559-487-5561
FAX: 559-487-5950

801 I Street, 3rd floor
Sacramento, CA 95814
Toll Free: 855-328-8339
TEL: 916-498-5700
FAX: 916-498-5710

Over three decades, of dedication and hard work, members of the Federal Defenders Office have consistently delivered legal advice, provided zealous representation, and have won victories for our clients in a broad range of complex and challenging civil and criminal cases, before the federal courts from the trial level through the United States Supreme Court.

It is our mission and goal to continue to do so.


The Beginning

Roots of the right to counsel for the defendant who cannot afford to pay a private lawyer can be found more than a century ago. In Webb v. Baird, the Indiana Supreme Court in 1853 recognized a right to an attorney at public expense for an indigent person accused of crime, grounded in "the principles of a civilized society," not in constitutional or statutory law.

"It is not to be thought of in a civilized community for a moment that any citizen put in jeopardy of life or liberty should be debarred of counsel because he is too poor to employ such aid," the Indiana court wrote.

"No court could be expected to respect itself to sit and hear such a trial. The defense of the poor in such cases is a duty which will at once be conceded as essential to the accused, to the court and to the public."

The Sixth Amendment to the United States Constitution states: "In all criminal prosecutions, the accused shall enjoy the right . . . to have the Assistance of Counsel for his defense." The right to counsel in federal proceedings was well-established by statute early in the country's history, and was reaffirmed by the U.S. Supreme Court in 1938 in Johnson v. Zerbst. The Webb v. Baird decision, however, was the exception rather than the rule in the states.

"No court could be expected to respect itself to sit and hear such a trial. The defense of the poor in such cases is a duty which will at once be conceded as essential to the accused, to the court and to the public."

Well into the 20th century, most states relied on the volunteer pro bono efforts of lawyers to provide defense for poor people accused of even the most serious crimes. While some private programs, such as the New York Legal Aid Society, were active as early as 1896 in providing counsel to needy immigrants, and the first public defender office began operation in Los Angeles in 1914, such services were non-existent outside of the largest cities.

The United States Court developed the Sixth Amendment right to counsel in state proceedings gradually and somewhat haltingly in the 20th century. In Powell v. Alabama the famous "Scottsboro Case" from the Depression era, the Court held that counsel was required in all state capital proceedings.

Only a decade later, however, in Betts v. Brady, the Court declined to extend the Sixth Amendment right to counsel to state felony proceedings. It was not until 1963, twenty-one years after Betts, that the Court again addressed the issue of the right to counsel in state proceedings involving serious non-capital crimes. In a dramatic series of decisions, the Supreme Court firmly established the right to counsel in virtually all aspects of state criminal proceedings.

The most significant decision on the right to counsel in Supreme Court history was Gideon v. Wainwright, which overruled Betts v. Brady. The Court unanimously held that an indigent person accused of a serious crime was entitled to the appointment of defense counsel at state expense.

The Ford Foundation provided support to National Legal Aid and Defender Association (NLADA) in 1962, providing its National Defender Project with $2.6 million in seed money to create offices for the defense of indigent clients. This grant presaged by a few months Gideon v.Wainwright, the case in which the U.S. Supreme Court declared that criminal defendants are entitled to legal defense regardless of their ability to pay for counsel.

The National Defender Project worked with state and local authorities, law schools, and federal agencies. Within the next few years Congress passed the Criminal Justice Act, which established standards of representation in federal courts and compensation for counsel called on to defend indigent defendants.

Four years later, with its decision in In re Gault, the Supreme Court built on the Gideon decision to extend to children the same rights as adults by providing counsel to the indigent child charged in juvenile delinquency proceedings. The right to counsel in trial courts was significantly expanded again when the Court, in Argersinger v. Hamlin, extended the right to counsel to all misdemeanor state proceedings where there is a potential loss of liberty.

The decisions in Gideon, Gault and Argersinger are the best known of the right-to-counsel cases in the Supreme Court, but they were part of a broader array of decisions rendered by the Court in the past three decades, all of which protect the right to counsel for people who cannot afford to hire a private lawyer. The Court recognized the low-income defendant's right to counsel at such critical stages of criminal proceedings as:

After conviction, the indigent defendant is constitutionally guaranteed the right to counsel in:

Finally, in any criminal proceeding in which counsel appears, the defendant is entitled to counsel's effective assistance, under Strickland v. Washington, decided in 1984.


In 1966, the Eastern District and Central Districts were created by dividing California into four judicial districts: Northern, Southern, Central and Eastern. The territory of the federal district and bankruptcy courts for the Eastern District of California encompasses 34 counties that are located from Kern County in the South to Siskiyou County in the North and lie between the Eastern slope of the Coastal range and the California/Nevada border. A local plan is adopted for each district which provides the procedure for assigned counsel for persons qualifying for court-appointed counsel.

The plan is administratively administered by the Administrative Office of the United States Courts through its Criminal Justice Act division. The Criminal Justice Act in the Eastern District of California is administered by the Office of the Federal Defender.

When the District was formed there was no Federal Defender (See also, A History of the Eastern District of California -- Then and Now). Counsel was appointed for indigent defendants by going through the yellow pages of the phone book. At the time of arraignment (which was done in District Court, since there were not magistrates yet), if a defendant stated that he did not have the funds to hire counsel, the clerk simply selected the next name in order from the phone book. A good clerk exercised some discretion in skipping over the names of some attorneys in the selection of attorneys in obviously complex cases. The process did serve to acquaint the courthouse staff with a number of probate, corporate and divorce attorneys into the court that might otherwise have never seen the inside of the federal courthouse, but it left something to be desired in the quality of representation afforded in many criminal cases.


The Office of the Federal Public Defender was created by Congress to fulfill the constitutional requirement that indigent people charged with federal crimes be provided legal representation at no cost. The Eastern District of California was created in 1966, prompting the establishment of the Federal Defender’s Sacramento office in 1971. The Fresno branch, servicing the Eastern District’s southern division, opened in 1977.

In 1971, a judicial committee selected E. Richard Walker to be the first Federal Defender for the Eastern District of California. Walker had previously clerked in the Northern District of California for District Judge Oliver J. Carter, who often sat in on Sacramento cases before the Eastern District was established.

Prior to serving as Federal Defender, Walker was an Assistant U.S. Attorney in Sacramento, Trinity County’s District Attorney, an Assistant Public Defender in Yolo County, and later a private attorney. Walker represented a diverse clientele, including Charles Manson family member Lynette "Red" "Squeaky" Fromme, after her attempt to assassinate President Gerald Ford on September 5, 1975. Walker retired in July of 1987.


In August 1987, Arthur W. Ruthenbeck was appointed Federal Defender. Before his appointment, Ruthenbeck served as a Deputy District Attorney in San Mateo County, California and the Assistant Chief of the Administrative Office’s Defender Services Division in Washington, DC. Ruthenbeck then worked as an Assistant Federal Defender and later served as Chief Assistant Federal Defender in both the Fresno and San Francisco’s Northern District Office. Ruthenbeck received his bachelor’s degree from the University of San Francisco and his J.D. from the University of California, Hastings College of Law.

Ruthenbeck was instrumental in the Eastern District’s (and Judicial Council of the Ninth Circuit’s approval) Adoption of the Criminal Justice Act Plan. The Plan set out objectives, compliance and provisions to furnish representation for indigent people in federal court proceedings.

In addition to litigating many white-collar cases, Ruthenbeck successfully resolved a large civil rights class action suit filed against Sacramento County in 1979, in which prisoners demanded improvements to housing conditions at the Sacramento County Jail. This win resulted in the building of a new Sacramento County Jail facility. Ruthenbeck retired in June of 1996.


In June of 1996, Quin Denvir was appointed Federal Defender. Denvir began his career in public service at California Legal Assistance, a publicly financed agency offering legal aid to the poor in civil matters. Denvir later worked as a Public Defender in Monterey County, served as the State Public Defender from 1978 to 1984, and then worked as a private practitioner until 1996.

Denvir graduated from the University of Notre Dame, spent four years in the U.S. Navy, earned his master’s degree in economics at American University and received his J.D. from the University of Chicago School of Law.

Denvir was lead counsel in the "Unabomber" Theodore Kaczynski trial. He represented former state schools chief, William Honig, by appealing his conflict-of-interest conviction, Michelle "Batgirl" Cummiskey, charged with the brutal slaying of a Sacramento man, and Reza Eslaminia, charged with murdering his father, a former Iranian official, in what was deemed the “Billionaire Boys Club” murder. In addition to trial and appellate work, Denvir represented death row inmates in their federal habeas corpus proceedings.

In September 1996, the nation’s second Capital Habeas Unit was funded and established in Sacramento. The Capital Habeas Unit represents state capital prisoners in federal habeas corpus proceedings, brought pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 2254. Denvir retired in December of 2005.

2000 - 2012

Daniel Broderick was appointed Federal Defender in January 2006. Broderick served as the Eastern District’s Chief Assistant since 1999 and began working as Assistant Federal Defender in 1991. Prior to that, he was counsel at Berman & Clark in Santa Monica, CA, a professor at Pepperdine University, served as an Assistant U.S. Attorney in the Central District and as a Law Clerk to the Honorable Malcolm M. Lucas, U.S. District Judge.

Broderick received his J.D. from Yale Law School and his B.A. from Stanford University. Dan Broderick stepped down December 31, 2012.

2013 - Present

Heather Williams was appointed Federal Defender in May of 2013, after serving as First Assistant Federal Defender in Arizona since 2006 and joining the office in 1994 as an Assistant Federal Defender. Williams began her career in public service in 1988 as an Assistant Public Defender for Pima County, where she handled felony cases including death penalty homicides, drugs, sex crimes, and child abuse. Prior to that, she worked as an associate attorney in San Diego, California, from 1986 to 1988.

A Tucson native, Williams received her bachelor’s degree, summa cum laude, from Pittsburg State University in 1982 and J.D. from the University of San Diego Law School in 1985.

Williams oversees two fully staffed branch offices with a total annual budget of $17.38 million and approximately 95 employees, including attorneys, paralegals, investigators, and administrative personnel.

Williams was reappointed to a second four-year term and sworn in by Chief District Judge Lawrence J. O’Neill on February 28, 2017.