Michigan Victory on Right to Counsel Shifts Spotlight Back to New York

A lawsuit challenging Michigan’s inadequate defense services for the poor received an important victory on Friday, when the Michigan Supreme Court ruled that the suit could go forward. Now the spotlight shifts to New York, where a similar lawsuit, Hurrell-Harring v. State of New York, is pending before New York’s highest court, which could issue a decision at any time. These two cases represent the cutting edge of an important national movement to ensure that individuals have adequate representation in criminal proceedings.

In Duncan v. State of Michigan, a group of indigent people charged with crimes, represented by the American Civil Liberties Union of Michigan, maintained that the indigent defense systems in three Michigan counties deny countless poor people the right to effective representation in their criminal trials, violating both the United States and Michigan constitutions.

According to the plaintiffs, these counties fail to provide even basic resources and safeguards to provide criminal defendants with competent representation – for example, attorneys lack supervision and training, there are no performance or eligibility standards to monitor their work, and there are no standards for attorney workload to ensure that attorneys have adequate time and resources to properly represent their clients.

The result is that poor defendants routinely lack representation that meets even the basic standards of the legal profession. And the consequences are grim – including wrongful convictions (with the real wrongdoers roaming free), excessive incarceration, and costly delays and appeals that burden prosecutors’ offices and courts.

Moreover, as the Brennan Center argued in an amicus brief to the Michigan Supreme Court, filed jointly with the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers, the NAACP Legal Defense & Educational Fund, and the Constitution Project, many of the harms to the accused that result from inadequate representation cannot be remedied after-the-fact by post-conviction proceedings. For example, when attorney error leads to the wrongful denial of bail, no post-conviction review can undo the loss of liberty, as well as the resulting disruptions to work, family, and other important life commitments.

In allowing this suit to go forward, the Michigan Supreme Court implicitly recognized the vital role that the judicial branch plays when state action (or inaction) threatens systemic violations of constitutional rights. As the lower court explained in its earlier ruling [pdf],

“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. . . . Judicial modesty does not equate to ignoring constitutional obligations.”

The current focus on reform extends far beyond Michigan. Across the country, in places that have forever failed to adequately guarantee the right to counsel, litigation, public education, exonerations, and community impatience are prompting states to act. Georgia, Montana, and Texas are three states with new statewide public defender systems. The progress isn’t perfect, of course; for example, Georgia has already backtracked on some of its reform efforts. But the progress is significant, and it is just the beginning.

Right now, all eyes are back on New York. Like Michigan, New York regularly denies poor defendants effective representation, particularly in counties outside of New York City. And like Michigan, New York has a legislature that has consistently failed to fix the problem. New York’s highest court should follow Michigan’s lead and ensure that all individuals – rich and poor – are guaranteed their constitutional right to counsel. When all else fails, it is up to our courts to ensure that justice is done.