Detroit — The ACLU of Michigan announced today that the Supreme Court has agreed to hear a second constitutional challenge to a Michigan law - Halbert v. Michigan. The law denies legal representation to thousands of low-income people who are appealing their sentences. Oral argument will be held in April.

In a different case decided last December, Kowalski v. Tesmer, the Supreme Court sidestepped this same issue on technical grounds related to the right of the plaintiffs to challenge the constitutionality of the law.

“Michigan has attempted to do something that no other state has done in 40 years take away the right of poor people to have the same access to appellate courts that wealthy people have always had,” said David Moran, the ACLU of Michigan cooperating attorney who will argue the case.  “The state cannot take away the right to counsel simply because they cannot afford to hire their own lawyers.”

The issue began in 1999 when the Michigan legislature passed a law forbidding state trial judges from appointing counsel to help indigent criminal defendants with their appeals where the defendant had pled guilty.  

Representing lawyers who accept these appointments, the ACLU-M sued in federal court to stop enforcement of the law.  Both the district court and Sixth Circuit agreed that the law was unconstitutional but the Supreme Court ruled that the plaintiffs did not have standing to challenge the law.

In the present case, Antonio Halbert had asked for but was denied an attorney even though he was a special education student and unable to research legal issues and file his own appeal.  The ACLU-M will represent him before the Supreme Court.

To read the ACLU Brief in the previous case, see: