Published on: Tuesday, March 5, 2024

Clara Shortridge Foltz was the first woman lawyer on the Pacific Coast and the founder of the public defender movement.  She sued for entrance into California’s only law school, tried cases in court when women were not allowed to serve on juries and played a key role in winning women’s suffrage in California 100 years ago, as well as other struggles for civil rights and legal reform.

Foltz’s early experiences representing indigent clients and witnessing shysters, incompetent defense lawyers and prosecutorial misconduct led her to come up with the idea of a public defender to balance the public prosecutor.  In 1893, she presented her concept at the Congress of Jurisprudence and Law Reform at the Chicago World’s Fair as a California bar representative. She later drafted a model statute and campaigned for its introduction in numerous state legislatures. The first public defender office opened in Los Angeles in 1913 and the “Foltz Defender Bill” was adopted in 1921 in California.