ACLU of Michigan Urges Supreme Court to Strike Down State Law Denying Poor the Right to Counsel

April 25, 2005 12:00 am

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April 25, 2005

DETROIT -- The American Civil Liberties Union of Michigan today urged the U.S. Supreme Court to strike down a Michigan law denying legal representation to thousands of poor people in their criminal appeals.
""Michigan has attempted to do something that no other state has done in 40 years - take away the right of poor people to have the same access to appellate courts that wealthy people have always had,"" said David Moran, the ACLU of Michigan cooperating attorney who argued the case.

The case began in 1999 after the Michigan legislature passed a law forbidding state trial judges from appointing counsel to help indigent criminal defendants with their appeals where the defendant had pled guilty.

Representing lawyers who accept these appointments, the ACLU sued in federal court to stop enforcement of the law. Ruling in that case, Kowalski v. Tesmer, both the district court and Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals agreed that the law was unconstitutional because it violates indigent defendants' equal protection rights.

After the government appealed, the Supreme Court sidestepped a ruling the Kowalski case on technical grounds in December 2004, specifically saying that it was declining to ""reach the question of the procedure's constitutionality."" But in its decision, the Court noted that a proper party to challenge the constitutionality of the Michigan law in the Supreme Court would be a criminal defendant who was denied counsel in the Michigan appellate courts and then appealed to the Supreme Court.

In the case before the Court today, Halbert v. Michigan, Antonio Halbert had asked for an attorney, but was denied even though he was a special education student and unable to research legal issues and file his own appeal.

Approximately 90 percent of people who go to court plead guilty, including some who are innocent, but fearful of facing a trial and risking more severe sentences, the ACLU said, and ninety percent of those people are indigent. If the Michigan law is not struck, the result will be the elimination of appellate review in nearly every case that reaches trial level and sentencing.

""This law further compounds an already inadequate defense system in the state,"" said Kary Moss, Executive Director of the ACLU of Michigan. ""Removing the right to counsel because someone cannot afford to hire an attorney will have devastating effects for the state.""

Findings of public hearings in 2003, conducted by the American Bar Association's Standing Committee on Legal Aid and Indigent Defendants indicate:
· Lack of independence of indigent defense counsel from judges and politicians
· Absence of sufficient training, qualification standards, and performance evaluations for indigent defense counsel
· Inordinately high caseloads of indigent defense counsel
· Lack of indigent defense system standards and accountability
· Lack of uniformity of indigent defense services within individual states
· The absence of statewide oversight of indigent defense services
· Inadequate funding for indigent defense services
· Lack of resources for investigative, expert and other support services
· Inadequate compensation for indigent defense counsel
· Disparity in funding and resources for indigent defense versus prosecution
To read the ACLU brief, go to: </node/36304>
To read the Supreme Court order agreeing to hear the case, go to: <http://www.supremecourtus.gov/orders/courtorders/010705pzr.pdf>
To read the Supreme Court Opinion released in December, go to: <http://a257.g.akamaitech.net/7/257/2422/13dec20041215/
www.supremecourtus.gov/opinions/04pdf/03-407.pdf
>
To read the ACLU brief in the previous case, go to: </node/36316>

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