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Sara Mayeux

Associate Professor of Law
Associate Professor of History

Sara Mayeux is a legal historian of the twentieth-century United States, focusing on criminal law and procedure, constitutional law and legal culture. She is also interested broadly in the interplay between law and history. Her book, Free Justice: A History of the Public Defender in Twentieth-Century America (UNC Press, 2020), was praised in The Nation magazine as “a definitive history of this important yet conflicted institution,” and received the 2020 Langum Prize in American Legal History. The book chronicles debates about indigent criminal defense from the Progressive Era through the Cold War. In 2017, her Columbia Law Review article on the effects of Gideon v. Wainwright, “What Gideon Did," received the Cromwell Article Prize, awarded annually for the best article in American legal history published by an early career scholar. Professor Mayeux earned her law degree, as well as her Ph.D. in history, from Stanford University. Before joining Vanderbilt’s law faculty in 2016, she was a Sharswood Fellow at the University of Pennsylvania Law School and the Berger-Howe Legal History Fellow at Harvard Law School. Before entering the legal academy, she clerked for Judge Marsha S. Berzon of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit.

In the Media

"And a Public Defender for All," a column about Ketanji Brown Jackson's becoming the first former public defender to serve on the Supreme Court in Inquest, April 12, 2022

"Free Justice: A History of the Public Defender in Twentieth-Century America," a podcast based on her new book, posted at, Sep. 1, 2020

"Sara Mayeux on the History of the Public Defender," a podcast on her new book, posted Jul. 21, 2020
"The Evolution of Free Speech," a podcast by With Good Reason at Virginia Humanities and James Madison’s Montpelier, posted Sep. 17, 2018
"Litigating the Line Between Past and Present," posted at, Sep. 28, 2017

Research Interests

Criminal law and procedure, constitutional law, American legal history

Representative Publications

  • Free Justice: A History of the Public Defender in Twentieth-Century America, University of North Carolina Press (2020)
    Full Text | WWW
  • “Youth and Punishment at the Roberts Court,” 21 University of Pennsylvania Journal of Constitutional Law 543 (2018)
    Full Text | BEPRESS
  • “‘An Honest But Fearless Fighter’: The Adversarial Ideal of Public Defenders in 1930s and ’40s Los Angeles,” 36 Law and History Review 619 (2018)
    Full Text | WWW
  • “The Idea of ‘the Criminal Justice System,’” 45 American Journal of Criminal Law 55 (2018)
    Full Text | SSRN
  • "Federalism Anew," 56 American Journal of Legal History 128 (2016) (with Karen Tani)
    Full Text | WWW
  • “What Gideon Did,” 116 Columbia Law Review 15 (2016)
    Full Text | SSRN | WWW
  • “Ineffective Assistance of Counsel Before Powell v. Alabama: Lessons from History for the Future of the Right to Counsel,” 99 Iowa Law Review 2161 (symposium contribution, 2014). Cited by the Iowa Supreme Court in State v. Young (April 3, 2015)
    Full Text | SSRN
  • “The Origins of Back-end Sentencing in California,” 22 Stanford Law & Policy Review 529 (2011)
    Full Text | WWW
  • “The Case of the Black-Gloved Rapist: Defining the Public Defender in the California Courts, 1913-1948,” 5 California Legal History 217 (2010)
    Full Text | WWW