On February 22, 2007, eight indigent felony defendants filed a 42 U.S.C. §1983 lawsuit against the State of Michigan and its governor, Jennifer M. Granholm, in a Michigan state court, specifically, the Circuit Court for Ingham County, Michigan. The plaintiffs, represented by the American Civil Liberties Union of Michigan and private counsel, requested class certification to represent a proposed class of all indigent adults who had been charged or would be charged with felonies in the District and Circuit Courts of Berrien, Genesee, and Muskegon Counties and who relied or would rely on the Counties to provide them with counsel for their defense.
The plaintiffs sought declaratory and injunctive relief, claiming that the State abdicated its constitutional and statutory responsibility by delegating responsibility for indigent defense to individual counties and failing to fund or provide oversight for such services. Plaintiffs complained of a number of resulting deficiencies including: underfunding, inadequate training, overwhelming caseloads, and the lack of standards for performance and workload. Plaintiffs claimed that the resulting system failed to provide indigent defendants with constitutionally adequate representation. The plaintiffs requested that the court declare the current public defense system unconstitutional and order (via injunctive relief) that the State provide representation consistent with the requirements of the U.S. and Michigan constitutions.
On May 16, 2007, Judge Laura Baird of the Ingram County Circuit Court denied the state's motion to dismiss based on governmental immunity, and granted class certification. The state appealed. On June 11, 2009, the Michigan Court of Appeals, in consolidated appeals of the trial court's decisions, affirmed the trial court on all counts, holding that the state is not shielded by governmental immunity and that the trial court properly certified the class.
Again, the State appealed, and on December 18, 2009, the Michigan Supreme Court agreed to hear the case, putting it on the April 2010 session calendar. Briefs of amici curiae were submitted to the Michigan Supreme Court by the Criminal Defense Attorneys of Michigan, the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers, the Brennan Center for Justice, the NAACP Legal Defense & Educational Fund, the Constitution Project and the University of Michigan Innocence Clinic.
On April 30, 2010, the Michigan Supreme Court, after hearing oral arguments, vacated the trial court's order granting the plaintiffs' motion for class certification and remanded the case to the Ingham Circuit Court for consideration of the plaintiffs' motion for class certification. Also, the Michigan Supreme Court affirmed the result only of the Court of Appeals majority claiming that the defendants were not entitled to summary judgment as it was premature to make a decision on the substantive issues in the case. 780 N.W.2d 843.
In a surprising development, on July 16, 2010, the Michigan Supreme Court granted reconsideration and vacated its April 30, 2010 order thereby reversing the June 11, 2009 Court of Appeals decision for the reasons stated in that dissenting opinion including the plaintiffs' lack of standing. The order remanded the case to the Ingham Circuit Court, ordering entry of summary judgment in favor of the defendants. 784 N.W.2d 51.
On November 30, 2010, the Court again granted reconsideration, and reinstated the April 30 ruling, holding that first reconsideration was improperly granted. 790 N.W.2d 695. Two additional requests for reconsideration were denied. 791 N.W.2d 721 and 795 N.W.2d 820.
We have no further information about the progression of this case at the moment. However, on October 13, 2011, at least partly in response to this case and to campaigning by the ACLU of Michigan and other groups, Michigan Governor Rick Snyder issued an Executive Order establishing an 14-member Indigent Defense Advisory Commission charged with compiling a report on the status of indigent defense in the State and making recommendations on its improvement.
On June 22, 2012, the Commission released its report, finding that Michigan's history of delegating its responsibility to provide counsel to indigent defendants to the counties, as political-subdivisions of the State, had resulted in an uncoordinated, 83-county "patchwork quilt" with no standards as to the adequate of counsel or the level of funding. There was no State-level regulatory guidance as to what level of service would be constitutionally adequate. Most legal practitioners involved in the Michigan criminal justice system (judges, prosecutors, and indigent defense attorneys) who testified before the Commission acknowledged that the American Bar Association's recommendations for a minimally constitutionally adequate indigent defense system were not being met in Michigan. The report acknowledged Michigan ranked 44th in per capita indigent defense spending, spending 38% less than the national average. Only three of the State's 57 circuit courts funded indigent defense at or above the national average, and if it were to meet the national average the State would have to increase its total annual spending for indigent defense by nearly $50,000,000. The Commission recognized that the widespread inadequacy of indigent defense had led to higher than necessary levels of wrongful convictions, sentencing errors, and appeals resulting from ineffective assistance of counsel. It found that these avoidable errors cost the State millions of dollars.
Other recommendations included mandatory relevant continuing legal education for defense counsel, that defense counsel workloads be controlled and economic incentives encouraging the overburdening of attorneys be eliminated, and that defense counsel be provided with sufficient time and confidential space in order to consult with defendants.
The Commission recommended the State create a system that would ensure state-wide implementation of the ABA's minimum standards, and which would provide adequate funding. The Commission found that the creation of a new independent State agency, in the judicial branch, would be necessary to enforce these standards.
In June 2013, Michigan passed legislation establishing a permanent Michigan Indigent Defense Commission, largely following the recommendations of the earlier Commission's report. The commission will develop statewide standards, and the State will be obligated to provide funding to local county systems in order to maintain these standards if local funding is insufficient.David Miller - 11/29/2010
Alex Colbert-Taylor - 06/28/2013