Promise of Right to Counsel for Poor Remains an Illusion in Michigan

March 18, 2008

The American Civil Liberties Union of Michigan today marked the 45th anniversary of the historic Supreme Court decision in Gideon v. Wainwright by calling on Michigan to provide adequate legal defense for the poor.

The landmark 1963 decision held that the Constitution guarantees every person charged with a felony the right to an attorney even if he or she cannot afford one. Subsequent cases have refined the ruling to extend to misdemeanor cases and to require "competent" representation. Unfortunately, the promise of Gideon remains largely unfulfilled in Michigan.

“Every day, people who cannot afford private counsel are being denied justice in Michigan,” said Kary L. Moss, ACLU of Michigan Executive Director.  “Michigan must step up on this anniversary and take charge of public defense to ensure that all people in Michigan receive equal justice.”

In February 2007, the ACLU of Michigan, along with coalition partners the National ACLU and the law firm of Cravath, Swaine & Moore filed a lawsuit against the State of Michigan and Governor Jennifer Granholm for failing to fulfill their constitutional obligation to provide adequate defense services to those who cannot afford private counsel. 

The lawsuit, which was filed in Ingham County, charges that Michigan has long abdicated its constitutional duty to ensure that citizens accused of crimes receive timely, qualified, appropriately-resourced lawyers for their defense.  For more than 30 years, state and local experts have reported on the deficiencies of Michigan’s public defense system, yet the state has done nothing to improve the situation.  Recently, an American Bar Association report on the state of public defense across the country repeatedly cited Michigan for failing to meet the ABA Ten Principles, which are considered the fundamental criteria a system must meet to provide effective public defense. 

The lawsuit focuses on three counties – Muskegon County, Berrien County, and Genesee County, where the problems associated with public defense are obvious.

In Berrien County for example, the prosecution receives almost four times the funding of the public defense system. Because of these and other inequities, public defenders are crippled by overwhelming caseloads that impede them from meeting with their clients, investigating cases, filing appropriate pre-trial motions, and preparing properly for court appearances. 

In May, an Ingham County Circuit Court Judge denied the state’s request to dismiss the case.

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