Reforming the Broken Indigent Defense System: Duncan v. Granholm

"It is widely accepted that Michigan’s criminal justice system is broken for poor people accused of crimes. When the indigent defense system is broken, everyone suffers. Innocent men and women end up in prison while the perpetrators are left on the streets to commit more crimes.”
- Michael J. Steinberg, ACLU of Michigan legal director

For decades, leaders in the state have recognized that Michigan’s system of representing poor individuals accused of crimes is broken. Michigan provides no administrative oversight or funding for public defense at the trial level. There is no training for public defense attorneys, no performance standards to govern their practice, and no review of their performance. They have too many cases and insufficient resources to hire outside investigators or experts.

Case History

In February 2007, the ACLU and its coalition partners filed Duncan v. Granholm, a critically important class action against the state to fix this longstanding problem. The state responded by asking the court to dismiss the case, contending that the counties, not the state, were responsible for any deficiencies in the system.

Ingham County Circuit Judge Laura Baird rejected the state’s argument. She ruled that the state is responsible for ensuring constitutionally adequate criminal defense. Judge Baird also granted the ACLU’s request to certify the case as a class action.

The Michigan Court of Appeals affirmed the ruling in a 2-1 decision and in June 2010 the Michigan Supreme Court unanimously ordered that the ACLU be given an opportunity to prove its case in the trial court. However, in an unprecedented move, the Supreme Court reversed itself the following month and, in a 4-3 order, dismissed the case outright. In December 2010, the Michigan Supreme Court reinstated the original order and sent the case back to Ingham Circuit Court to rule on the merits of the case.

In October 2011, Governor Rick Snyder issued an executive order establishing a commission to improve Michigan’s system for providing defense to poor people in criminal cases. 

In June 2012, the Governor’s Indigent Defense Advisory Commission issued a report that not only acknowledged the problems, but outlined a roadmap for the legislature to ensure that our criminal justice system works for all Michiganders regardless of their economic status.

Meanwhile, the state sought dismissal of the case once again in the trial court, and their motion was denied.  The Court of Appeals then agreed to hear the second appeal and, in April 2013, again ruled in favor of the ACLU. 

Two months later, the Michigan legislature enacted a law to implement statewide reform that the ACLU and its coalition partners had been advocating for years. The new law establishes a permanent indigent defense commission to set minimum standards, train criminal defense attorneys, monitor their performance, and ensure that competent legal representation is being provided throughout the state.

Because the new law puts in place many of the reforms the lawsuit called for, the ACLU voluntarily dismissed the case in July 2013.

Key News and Documents

► Document | Read the complaint in this case

► Document | Read the June 2009 Court of Appeals decision

► Document | Read the April 2010 Supreme Court Order

► Document | Read the December 2010 Supreme Court Order reinstating the case

► Document | Read the April 2013 Court of Appeals decision

► More Info | 

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