Reforming the Broken Indigent Defense System

July 16, 2013

For decades, leaders in the state have recognized that Michigan’s system of representing poor individuals accused of crimes is broken. In 2007, the ACLU filed a critically important class action against the state to fix this longstanding problem. The state responded by asking the court to dismiss the case, contending that the counties, not the state, were responsible for any deficiencies in the system.

Judge Laura Baird rejected the state’s argument. She ruled that the state is responsible for ensuring constitutionally adequate criminal defense and simply because Michigan has delegated its responsibility to the counties, it is not “off the hook” when the system fails. Judge Baird also granted the ACLU’s request to certify the case as a class action. The state appealed and the Michigan Court of Appeals ruled in favor of the ACLU.

In December 2010, the Michigan Supreme Court finally ruled in favor of the ACLU and sent the case back to the trial court. The state filed another motion to dismiss, which Judge Baird denied.

However, while the parties prepared for discovery and trial, the state filed yet another appeal challenging the plaintiffs’ standing and the class certification order. The Court of Appeals agreed to hear the second appeal and again ruled in favor of the ACLU in April 2013. Two months later, the Michigan legislature enacted a bill to implement statewide reform that the ACLU and its coalition partners had been advocating for years. The new law establishes a permanent indigent defense commission to set minimum standards, train criminal defense attorneys, monitor their performance, and ensure that competent legal representation is being provided throughout the state. Because the new law puts in place many of the reforms the lawsuit called for, the ACLU voluntarily dismissed the case in July 2013.

(Duncan v. Michigan; ACLU of Michigan Attorneys Mark Fancher, Jessie Rossman, Sarah Mehta, and Michael J. Steinberg; National ACLU Attorneys Robin Dahlberg and Elora Mukherjee; Cooperating Attorneys Julie North, Sarita Prabu and Justine Beyda of Cravath Swaine & Moore, Mark Granzotto, and Frank Eaman.)

To view the full 2013-2014 Legal Docket, click here.

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