Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court Upholds Indigent Right to Counsel in Historic Case Filed by ACLU

July 28, 2004 12:00 am

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BOSTON – The right of poor people to legal counsel was upheld in an historic decision issued today by the Supreme Judicial Court of Massachusetts, in a lawsuit brought by the American Civil Liberties Union of Massachusetts and the Committee for Public Service Counsel.

“This is an historic victory in which the court has reaffirmed the right to counsel for all people,” said David Hoose of the law firm Katz, Sasson, Hoose & Turnbull, who argued the case on behalf of the ACLU of Massachusetts. “We are pleased that the court has recognized both the seriousness of the Constitutional violation and the need for an immediate remedy.”

The court ordered that any person charged with a crime who does not receive appointed counsel within 45 days will have his or her case dismissed, and people who have been held for more than seven days will be entitled to immediate release if a lawyer has not been appointed for them.

The order was issued in response to cases filed on behalf of more than 50 people who have been charged with crimes in Hampden County, but who have not been appointed counsel. Some of them have been imprisoned for more three months without a lawyer.

The court held that the petitioners “are being deprived of their right to counsel under Article 12 of the Massachusetts Declaration of Rights, a deprivation that has resulted in severe restrictions on their liberty and other constitutional interests.”

The court further ordered that “on a showing that no counsel is available to represent a particular indigent defendant despite good faith efforts, such a defendant may not be held more than seven days and the criminal case against such a defendant may not continue beyond forty-five days.”

“Responsibility for any problems that may result from this decision lie squarely at the feet of the legislature,” said Hoose. “It is a result of their unwillingness to act to provide lawyers for poor people.”

“We call upon the legislature to take steps immediately to ensure that our clients will have competent representation from their very first court appearance forward,” Hoose added. “They could do that by raising rates for hiring private counsels or by hiring additional public defenders. The only other alternative is to put these people on the streets.”

The court’s opinion is online at

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