ACLU Urges Appeals Court to Allow Lawsuit Against State to Proceed

December 09, 2008

In oral arguments today, the American Civil Liberties Union urged the Michigan Appeals Court to allow it to proceed with a class action lawsuit that seeks to fix Michigan’s system for providing lawyers to poor people in criminal proceedings.

“We must be given the opportunity to prove that the criminal justice system is broken for poor people accused of crimes in this state,” said Michael J. Steinberg, legal director of the ACLU of Michigan. “When the defense system is dysfunctional, fair trials are impossible, innocent people go to jail and the guilty remain free to commit other crimes.”

In February 2007, the ACLU filed a class action against the state on behalf of all indigent criminal defendants in Berrien, Muskegon and Genesee Counties accusing the state of Michigan of failing to fulfill its constitutional obligation to assure that those who cannot afford private counsel are provided with adequate representation. The state tried to have the lawsuit dismissed on technical grounds arguing that a class action is inappropriate and that the plaintiffs cannot seek relief until after they are convicted.

In May 2007, Ingham County Circuit Court Judge Laura Baird rejected the state’s arguments, but the state appealed. Today a panel of the Court of Appeals made up of Judges William Murphy, David Sawyer and William Whitbeck heard oral argument.

Although the panel did not issue a ruling, the judges candidly criticized the way Michigan provides indigent defense. Judge Whitbeck characterized the problem as a “systemic deficiency” and Judge Sawyer stated that there are “tremendous problems.” The panel recognized that the state has failed to act to fix the system for decades even though the problems are well documented.

Currently, Michigan provides no administrative oversight or funding for public defense at the trial level, but delegates all responsibility to the counties. There is no state training for public defense attorneys, no performance standards to govern their practice, and no review of their performance. Moreover, many of the counties have been dramatically under-funding indigent defense for years. The result is that in each of the three counties at issue in the suit - and indeed in many parts of Michigan - the public defense provided does not meet national standards or the constitutional minimum requirements for effective assistance.

Attorneys for the class of indigent defendants include Frank Eaman of Detroit, Emily Chiang and Robin Dahlberg of the National ACLU, Julie North and Misty Archambault of New York law firm of Cravath Moore & Swain, Mark Fancher and Steinberg of the Michigan ACLU. ACLU of Michigan General Counsel Mark Granzotto presented oral argument.

To read the ACLU brief on appeal, click here.
To read the complaint, click here.

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