Lansing — An Ingham County Circuit Court Judge ruled today that a lawsuit against the State of Michigan for failing to fulfill its constitutional obligation to provide appropriate defense services for those who cannot afford private counsel will proceed.
"We are pleased with the court's decision," said Frank Eaman, a private defense lawyer from Detroit, who argued part of the motion on behalf of the plaintiffs, all persons accused of crimes in Berrien, Muskegon and Genesee. "It brings us one step closer to getting a criminal justice system that works for all of Michigan's residents."
Defendants, the State of Michigan and Governor Jennifer Granholm, had tried to have the lawsuit dismissed, arguing that the responsibility to provide counsel was delegated to the counties and that they had no duty to ensure that the counties complied. Judge Laura Baird disagreed. Reading her opinion from the bench, she stated that the delegation of the constitutional obligation to the counties did not mean that the state is "off the hook" when representation is deficient.
"The state has ignored the failing public defense system and the entire criminal justice system has suffered," said Emily Chiang of the national American Civil Liberties Union, which also represents the plaintiffs.
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. Moreover, many of the counties have been dramatically under-funding indigent defense for years. The result is that in each of the three counties at issue in the suit - and indeed in many parts of Michigan - the public defense provided does not meet national standards or the constitutional minimum requirements for effective assistance.
"The citizens of Michigan deserve better," said Chiang. "We hope this ruling will make it impossible for the state to continue to turn a blind eye toward this problem."
The lawsuit, which was filed by the ACLU of Michigan, the national ACLU, Cravath, Swaine & Moore LLP, and Frank D. Eaman PLLC, calls on the court to declare the current indigent defense systems of Muskegon County, Berrien County, and Genesee County unconstitutional and compel the state to provide a system of representation that meets constitutional standards.