Court Rules Kent County Judge Must Guarantee Poor Defendants Counsel
Detroit — The American Civil Liberties Union of Michigan announced today that the Michigan Court of Appeals has ruled that a Kent County judge defied the U.S. Supreme Court when he refused to appoint counsel to represent poor criminal defendants on appeal.
“The Court of Appeals opinion sends a message to all judges in this state that they can no longer deny poor people a fair appeal by refusing to appoint counsel,” said Michael J. Steinberg, Legal Director of the Michigan ACLU. “In this country, people should be punished because they deserve it, not because they can’t afford a lawyer."
In a 2005 landmark ACLU case, Halbert v. Michigan, the U.S. Supreme Court struck down a 1999 Michigan law barring judges from appointing attorneys to help poor people who have pled guilty to appeal their sentences. The high court specifically ruled that forcing poor people to navigate the appellate process without a lawyer violated the Due Process and Equal Protection Clauses of the Constitution.
Despite the Halbert case, Kent County Circuit Court Judge Dennis C. Kolenda denied appellate counsel to several poor people. He characterized the Supreme Court ruling as “incorrect” and “illogical.”
In January, the ACLU filed a “Complaint for Superintending Control” in the Court of Appeals asking the appellate court to direct Judge Kolenda to follow the law. Although the Court of Appeals refused to hear that case, it did agree to hear the case of William James, one of the individuals denied counsel by the judge.
On Tuesday, the Court of Appeals held that Judge Kolenda’s reasoning was “flawed” and that "there can be no credible dispute" that the Halbert case "governs the circumstances of this case with regard to defendant's essential right to appointed counsel." The Court further noted that James, the Kent County Prosecutor and the ACLU, which filed a friend-of-the-court brief, all agreed that Halbert was binding precedent that must be followed.
“We hope that those other defendants who, like Mr. James, were wrongfully denied counsel will also benefit from this decision.” said ACLU Cooperating Attorney Terence Flanagan, the primary author of the friend-of-the-court brief. “Appellate counsel is critical to ensure that sentencing errors are corrected and that Michigan taxpayers are not stuck with the bill for inmates wrongfully serving time.”
ACLU cooperating attorneys David Moran, Mark Granzotto and James Czarnecki worked on the case in addition to Flanagan and Steinberg.