ACLU Lauds Michigan Supreme Court Decision to Allow Public Defense Case to Proceed

April 30, 2010

Lansing – In an order issued today, the Michigan Supreme Court unanimously rejected the State of Michigan’s attempts to dismiss a lawsuit filed by the American Civil Liberties Union seeking to fix Michigan’s system for providing defense to poor people in criminal cases. The order was issued just 16 days after oral argument.

"We are gratified to finally have the opportunity to prove the well-known fact that Michigan’s criminal justice system is broken for poor people accused of crimes,” said Michael J. Steinberg, ACLU of Michigan legal director. “When the indigent defense system is broken, everyone suffers. Innocent men and women end up in prison while the perpetrators are left on the streets to commit more crimes.”

The state asked the Michigan Supreme Court to dismiss the case, arguing that the courts did not have the power to find the indigent defense system unconstitutional and that the plaintiffs could not sue until after they were convicted. Today, the Michigan Supreme Court rejected those arguments and sent the case back to Ingham Circuit Court, stating it was too early to rule on the merits of the case. The Supreme Court also asked the trial court to reevaluate the class action issue in light of the Supreme Court 2009 opinion in Henry v Dow Chemical Co, which was decided after the trial court had granted class certification in the ACLU’s case.

“Since the class action decision in Henry, the Michigan Supreme Court has routinely remanded class action cases to the trial court for reevaluation,” said Steinberg. “We are confident that we meet the Henry test and that we will finally get to the merits of the case.”

In February 2007, the ACLU filed a class action against the state on behalf of all indigent criminal defendants in Berrien, Muskegon and Genesee Counties. The lawsuit was filed in Ingham County Circuit Court and called on the court to declare the current public defense systems of the three counties unconstitutional and compel the state to assure representation consistent with national standards and constitutional norms.

In May 2007, Ingham County Circuit Court Judge Laura Baird rejected the state’s calls to dismiss the lawsuit, but the state appealed. In June 2009, the Michigan Court of Appeals rejected the state’s attempts to dismiss the lawsuit and allowed the lawsuit to proceed.

Currently, Michigan provides no administrative oversight or funding for public defense at the trial level, but delegates all responsibility to the counties. There is no state training for public defense attorneys, no performance standards to govern their practice, and no review of their performance. Moreover, many of the counties have been dramatically under-funding indigent defense for years. The result is that in each of the three counties at issue in the suit - and indeed in many parts of Michigan - the public defense provided does not meet national standards or the constitutional minimum requirements for effective assistance of counsel.

In addition, many experts believe the state’s broken system is costly. Michigan spends almost $2 billion dollars a year on prisons. Experts estimate that this amount is 40 percent higher than other states due to unwarranted, inappropriately long sentences. In addition, the broken system leads to the incarceration of innocent people. For instance, the case of Eddie Joe Lloyd, a man who served 17 years in prison for a crime he did not commit, cost the state $4 million to settle a lawsuit upon his release. This figure doesn’t include the hundreds of thousands of dollars spent to incarcerate him or the amount the state spent prosecuting the case and defending the appeal.

Attorneys for the class of indigent defendants include Steinberg, Mark Granzotto, Kary L. Moss, Mark Fancher and Jessie Rossman of the ACLU of Michigan, Frank Eaman of Detroit, Robin Dahlberg of the National ACLU, and Julie Northand Sarita Prabhu of New York law firm of Cravath Moore & Swain. Mark Granzotto argued the case in front of the Supreme Court on April 14,

To read the Michigan Supreme Court’s order, click here.
To read the complaint, click here.

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