Halbert v. Michigan: Ensuring Legal Representation for Poor Defendants

Detroit — The U.S. Supreme Court ruled today that the Michigan law denying legal representation to poor people in a criminal appeal is unconstitutional. The American Civil Liberties Union of Michigan filed the one of a kind case after the law was passed in 1999.

“I'm very pleased that the Court has rejected Michigan's attempt to gut the fundamental right to an attorney on a first appeal from a criminal conviction, a right that every American state, except Michigan, had scrupulously honored for more than 40 years,” said David Moran, the ACLU cooperating attorney who argued the case before the Court.

The case began in 1999 after the Michigan legislature passed a law forbidding state trial judges from appointing counsel to help indigent criminal defendants with their appeals where the defendant had pled guilty.  According to the ACLU, more than 90 percent of all felony convictions are obtained by guilty plea, and experience has shown that serious sentencing errors are just as likely to occur following a guilty plea as a trial. 
 
“Sentencing errors are so common that they result in many years in erroneous incarceration and cost the taxpayers millions of dollars in unnecessary corrections costs every year,” said Kary Moss, ACLU of Michigan Executive Director. “Yet, the Michigan Supreme Court ruled that poor people, and only poor people, must figure out how to appeal those sentencing errors without the assistance of lawyers.”
 
Recognizing the limitations of many poor people in the criminal justice system, writing for the six-three majority, Justice Ginsburg said, “Seven out of ten inmates fall into the lowest two out of five levels of literacy marked by an inability to do such basic tasks as write a brief letter to explain an error on a credit card bill, use a bus schedule, or state in writing an argument made in a lengthy newspaper article. Navigating the appellate process without a lawyer's assistance is a perilous endeavor for a layperson, and well beyond the competence of individuals, like Halbert, who have little education, learning disabilities, and mental impairments."
 
"Today's decision remedies a unique problem in Michigan's criminal justice system,” said Steven R. Shapiro, ACLU Legal Director.  “In a nation that believes in equal justice under law, people should be punished because they deserve it, not because they are too poor to afford a lawyer."

Representing lawyers who accept these appointments, the ACLU sued in federal court to stop enforcement of the law.  Both the district court and Sixth Circuit agreed that the law was unconstitutional because it violates indigent defendants’ equal protection rights.  The Supreme Court sidestepped the issue, in December 2004 in Kowalski v. Tesmer, on technical grounds.

In today’s case, however, Halbert v. Michigan, Antonio Halbert had asked for an attorney, but was denied counsel even though he was a special education student and unable to research legal issues and file his own appeal. 

“This is a victory not only for Mr. Halbert and other poor criminal defendants, but for the Constitution and the taxpayers as well,” said Moss.  “But this is only the first step in fixing the numerous problems of the inadequate defense system in our state.”

Findings of public hearings in 2003, conducted by the American Bar Association’s Standing Committee on Legal Aid and Indigent Defendants indicate:

  • Lack of independence of indigent defense counsel from judges and politicians;
  • Absence of sufficient training, qualification standards, and performance evaluations for indigent defense counsel;
  • Inordinately high caseloads of indigent defense counsel;
  • Lack of indigent defense system standards and accountability;
  • Lack of uniformity of indigent defense services within individual states;
  • The absence of statewide oversight of indigent defense services;
  • Inadequate funding for indigent defense services;
  • Lack of resources for investigative, expert and other support services;
  • Inadequate compensation for indigent defense counsel; and
  • Disparity in funding and resources for indigent defense versus prosecution.

To read the ACLU brief, go to: http://www.aclu.org/court/court.cfm?ID=17510&c=286

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