U.S. Court of Appeals Strikes Down Law

DETROIT - Today, in a significant victory for the right to counsel, the Sixth Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals struck down a Michigan law that would have prevented judges from appointing lawyers to represent poor people on appeal in guilty plea cases. The challenge to the law was brought by the American Civil Liberties Union of Michigan.

“The opinion embraces the important principle that poor people should have the same access to justice in this country as those who can afford attorneys,” said Kary Moss, Executive Director of the Michigan ACLU.  “Many indigent criminal defendants have not graduated high school and simply do not have the ability to navigate the legal system without a lawyer.”

In 2000, the Michigan legislature enacted a statute forbidding the appointment of counsel to represent indigent people in appeals of their sentence or conviction in guilty plea cases except in very limited circumstances.  In doing so, Michigan became the first state since the landmark 1963 Supreme Court case of Gideon v. Wainwright to take away the right of counsel for poor people for their first appeal.

In March, 2000, U.S. District Judge Victoria Roberts declared the law unconstitutional.  In today’s opinion, which was heard before the entire bench of the Sixth Circuit of the U.S. Court of Appeals, the court voted 7-5 to affirm Judge Roberts’ ruling. 

Chief Judge Boyce F. Martin, Jr., writing for the majority, said, “Michigan’s statute creates unequal access . . . to the first part of the appellate system. . . . [The law’s] “effect is to create a different opportunity for access to the appellate system based upon indigency.”

ACLU Cooperating Attorney David Moran, who argued the case said, “Michigan attempted to do something radical that no other state has done in 40 years take away the right of poor people to have the same access to the Court of Appeals that wealthy people enjoy.  We are happy that the Sixth Circuit refused to let the state do that.”

The opinion will have a far-reaching impact.  There are over a thousand requests for counsel in guilty plea cases every year in Michigan.  Although the vast majority of Michigan judges have been appointing appellate counsel in guilty plea cases since Judge Roberts’ ruling in 2000, there are over 500 cases where requests for counsel were denied.  Many of these 500 individuals may decide to go back to state court and seek an appointed attorney so that they may appeal.