The state of Michigan has a constitutional obligation to provide counsel to all persons accused of crimes who cannot afford to hire an attorney. The mere presence of an attorney is not enough. The state must ensure that the attorney has the resources to provide competent and effective representation.
The state of Michigan has long abdicated this constitutional duty by failing to fund or provide oversight for public defense services. Instead, Michigan has delegated to each of its 83 counties the responsibility for funding and administering the right to counsel in trial courts within their borders. As a result, public defenders lack the resources they need to represent their clients.
This lawsuit is not about individual attorneys or errors that may have occurred in individual cases. It is about a system that, as a result of the state's neglect, is so broken and underfunded that it prevents well-intentioned lawyers from providing constitutionally adequate representation.
The state does nothing to ensure that any county has the funding or the policies, programs, guidelines, and other essential resources in place to enable the attorneys it hires to provide constitutionally adequate legal representation. As a result, in Berrien, Muskegon and Genesee Counties, and many other counties in Michigan, defendants who cannot afford private counsel do not receive equal justice.
Moreover, the counties have been dramatically underfunding public defense for years, without any state intervention or assistance. In Genesee County, for example, the prosecution receives three times the funding of the public defense system. In Berrien County, the disparity is close to four to one.
The result is that the public defense provided in each of the three counties, and likely throughout Michigan, does not meet even the minimal constitutional requirements for effective assistance, no less the national standards established by the American Bar Association. Overwhelming caseloads mean that lawyers do not meet with their clients, appropriately investigate the charges, file necessary pre-trial motions, or prepare properly for court appearances. And without resources, lawyers cannot hire investigators or experts, even when necessary for an adequate defense.
The cases of the named plaintiffs demonstrate these deficiencies:
When the fundamental right to counsel is violated in this fashion, the justice system cannot function. The result is errors - people spend much longer in jail than appropriate or worse, the wrong people are convicted. Michigan has had two such exonerations - Eddie Joe Lloyd and Ken Wyniemko. In such a system, everyone loses.
Local and national experts have been warning Michigan about its failure to provide constitutionally adequate legal representation for more than thirty years.
All of these warnings have been disregarded.
By its inaction, the state is in clear violation of the United States and Michigan constitutions. This lawsuit seeks to compel the state of Michigan to meet its constitutional obligation to provide appropriate defense services for those who cannot afford private counsel in Michigan. It asks the court to declare the current public defense system unconstitutional and order the state to provide representation consistent with the requirements of the United States and Michigan constitutions.