he Michigan Supreme Court has agreed to hear a challenge to the state’s public defender system. More accurately, to the state’s lack of a public defender system and the fact that each county is responsible for providing attorneys for indigent defendants without funding or oversight from the state.
The lawsuit, a class action suit filed by the ACLU, seeks to have the indigent defense systems in three counties — Berrien, Genesee and Muskegon — declared unconstitutional and require the state to bring them in line with the requirements of the constitution.
A study earlier this year by the National Legal Aid and Defender Association and the State Bar of Michigan concluded that Michigan’s public defender system was so inadequate that it had become a “constitutional crisis.” In a press release, the ACLU praised the court’s decision to hear the case and argued strongly in favor of forcing the state to fix the system:
“In a state where we spend more on prisons than on education, it is imperative that this broken system be fixed and that all those accused of a crime receive the same quality of justice no matter how rich or poor,” said Kary L. Moss, ACLU of Michigan Executive Director. “We look forward to the opportunity to explain to the Michigan Supreme Court the need for our case to proceed so that justice is not delayed for poor people in the state.”
Earlier this year, the state asked the Court of Appeals to dismiss the case for technical reasons, arguing that the state was immune, that a class action is inappropriate and that the plaintiffs could not sue until after they are convicted. The Court of Appeals rejected the state’s arguments recognizing the plaintiffs must be given the opportunity to prove that the state has violated the Constitution.
“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,” wrote Michigan Appeals Court Judge William Murphy.
Michigan currently ranks 44th out of 50 states in spending on indigent defense.