Gideon Alert: Michigan Supreme Court unanimously allows ACLU lawsuit to proceed

BY David Carroll on Friday, April 30, 2010 at 1:09 PM

In a major victory for the right of poor criminal defendants to seek justice from our courts, today the Michigan Supreme Court unanimously issued an order allowing the American Civil Liberties Union lawsuit (Duncan v. State of Michigan) to move forward.  At stake was the question of whether a client can go to a judge for a remedy if the client believes they were hurt by the inadequate representation of their appointed lawyer.  Duncan sued the State of Michigan saying that Michigan failed in its constitutional duty to provide competent counsel for poor people faced with a loss of liberty in felony courts when it delegated that duty to individual counties and did not provide funding or oversight to ensure constitutional adequacy.  Though the lawsuit focuses on three counties (Berrien, Genesee and Muskegon), the case has statewide implications because the alleged underfunding, inadequate public counsel training, overwhelming caseloads, and lack of standards for performance and workload is endemic throughout the majority of Michigan counties.

This is now the third court that has ruled that the case should proceed.  The State has tried a variety of arguments to halt the people of insufficient means in Michigan from having their case heard, including claims that: the clients (plaintiffs in the suit) do not have standing to bring the case; the state actors have governmental immunity from being sued; the case should be heard in the Court of Claims (a different trial level court) because of the fiscal implications of any remedy; separation of powers doctrine prohibits the judicial branch from imposing remedies that will require expending funds, as this is the purview of the legislative branch of government; and, the class seeking relief should not be certified to bring the action.  Though today’s order tells the lower court to look again at the question about certifying the class - because new rules have been created since the trial court’s initial ruling --most importantly the State’s other arguments have proven unconvincing thus far to the trial, appellate and Supreme Courts.  (Watch the Supreme Court Oral Arguments in Duncan).

With today’s affirmation it is important to remember the words of the appellate court ruling: “We cannot accept the proposition that the constitutional rights of our citizens, even those accused of crimes and too poor to afford counsel, are not deserving and worthy of any protection by the judiciary in a situation where the executive and legislative branches fail to comply with constitutional mandates and abdicate their constitutional responsibilities, either intentionally or neglectfully.  If not by the courts, then by whom?”  

NLADA’s report, A Race to the Bottom, produced under the guidance of the State Bar of Michigan and on behalf of the Michigan Legislature under concurrent resolution of both chambers (SCR 39 of the 2006 Session), did not study the three counties that are the focus of the Duncan lawsuit, but it whole-heartedly concurs with the ACLU’s allegations.  In ten different counties across Michigan, NLADA concluded that many of the systemic deficiencies identified over three-quarters of a century ago in the Scottsboro Boys’ case continue to permeate the criminal courts of Michigan today: judges hand-picking defense attorneys; lawyers appointed to cases for which they are unqualified; defenders meeting clients on the eve of trial and holding non-confidential discussions in public courtroom corridors; attorneys failing to identify obvious conflicts of interest; failure of defenders to properly prepare for trials or sentencing; attorneys failing to meet their ethical canons to zealously advocate for clients; inadequate compensation for those appointed to defend the accused; and, a lack of sufficient time, training, investigators, experts and resources to properly prepare a case in the face of the state court’s emphasis on disposing of cases as quickly as possible.