Supreme Court Defers Decision on Michigan Appointed Counsel Law

Despite a loss in the U.S. Supreme Court today, the American Civil Liberties Union of Michigan remains hopeful that the Supreme Court eventually will strike down a Michigan law denying legal representation to thousands of poor people on appeal.

"It is important to emphasize that the Supreme Court declined to address the question of whether the Michigan law is constitutional,” said Wayne State University Law Professor David Moran, the ACLU volunteer lawyer who argued the case. “We are disappointed that the Court did not strike down the law today, but the issue is very much alive.”

In 1999, the Michigan Legislature enacted a statute generally forbidding state trial judges from appointing appellate counsel to assist indigent criminal defendants who had pleaded guilty with their appeals from their sentences or convictions. The ACLU sued to stop enforcement of the law and both the U.S. District Court and the U.S. Court of Appeals struck down the law as violating indigent defendants’ equal protection rights.

Today the Supreme Court held in a 6-3 decision that two of the plaintiffs in the case two attorneys who are regularly appointed to represent indigent criminal defendants on appeal did not have “standing” to sue in federal court.  The Court specifically said that it was declining to “reach the question of the procedure’s constitutionality.”

The Supreme Court noted that a proper party to challenge the constitutionality of the Michigan law in the Supreme Court would be a criminal defendant who was denied counsel in the Michigan appellate courts and then appealed to the Supreme Court. Court observers believe that the Court is likely to agree to hear the case of such a person soon.

“The question of whether poor people should have the same access to justice as those who can afford attorneys is too important an issue to be left unresolved,” said Michael J. Steinberg, legal director of the ACLU of Michigan. “We hope that the Supreme Court will address the constitutional question soon so that hundreds of additional individuals are not deprived of their right to counsel.”

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