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Friday, December 25, 2009

Courts - "Michigan Faces Constitutional Case Over Cash-Strapped Public Defenders"

Tresa Baldas reported Dec. 24th in The National Law Journal, in this story:

Are Michigan's public defenders improperly pushing the poor into copping pleas? The Michigan Supreme Court will consider that question this spring when it hears a case challenging how publicly appointed lawyers represent poor criminal defendants.

At issue is whether cash-strapped public defenders are violating the constitutional rights of defendants by allegedly too eagerly encouraging plea bargains, as opposed to vigorously fighting the charges. Indigent defendants in three Michigan counties -- Muskegon, Berrien and Genesee -- are suing the state over what they claim is an underfunded and inadequate public defender system.

The lawsuit, filed in 2007, got a boost in June when a Michigan appeals court ordered the case to proceed to trial. On Dec. 18, the state Supreme Court agreed to review that decision.

The plaintiffs contend that the public defender systems in their counties are so bad that poor people are pleading guilty because, for all practical purposes, they are given no other choice. The plaintiffs are represented by a team of private lawyers and advocacy groups, including the American Civil Liberties Union and the Brennan Center.

"The systems in those counties are designed to encourage people to plead guilty," said Frank Eaman, a solo criminal defense attorney in Detroit, who is helping represent the plaintiffs. According to Eaman, a team of investigators discovered numerous flaws: Public defenders would often meet their clients for the first time in court; investigations were rarely done; and witnesses were not interviewed.

"The Constitution requires a more rigorous defense," Eaman said.

Officials with the Michigan attorney general's office were not available for comment. In court documents, the state has argued that ineffective lawyering is properly remedied by appealing after a criminal conviction. The state has also argued that the plaintiffs have sued the wrong parties because the counties, not the state, have the responsibility to provide counsel for indigent defendants and that the lawsuit fails to show any damages suffered by the plaintiffs.

According to Eaman, Michigan is one of the few states that leave the expense of public defenders up to the counties. Most states have adopted statewide public defender programs, including in recent years Louisiana, Montana and Georgia, he said. Legislation is pending to create a statewide public defender program in Michigan.

The South Bend Tribune had this story Dec. 24th, reported by C. Draeger Thomas, that begins:
ST. JOSEPH — Berrien is one of three counties named in a lawsuit backed by the American Civil Liberties Union against the state that alleges poor people accused of crimes are not receiving proper legal counsel.

The Michigan Supreme Court recently agreed to hear an appeal in the class-action case that challenges the state's public defender system.

In addition to Berrien, Genesee and Muskegon counties are accused of violating the constitutional rights of defendants through an underfunded system that the ACLU alleges encourages plea bargains instead of a vigorous defense.

But Berrien County's corporate counsel R. McKinley "Mac" Elliott takes exception to the plea bargain complaint.

He said most cases, criminal and civil, are settled by plea bargains in the best interest of both parties and the victims, to avoid clogging up courts with prolonged trials. In addition, with plea bargains, he said, both sides know exactly what the penalties and consequences are.

With trials, a defendant has no idea of how the jury will rule, which makes the outcome a game of chance.

Elliott said the ACLU's case is driven by a national push to create statewide public defender systems, instead of letting counties handle how poor people accused of crimes obtain legal counsel.

In Berrien County various attorneys and law firms bid on contracts to represent the poor.

Posted by Marcia Oddi on December 25, 2009 01:23 PM
Posted to Courts in general