Much has been written over the last two years or so about bailouts: bailouts of Wall Street, banks and of course the auto-industry, formerly of Detroit, Michigan. This blog has also focused on bailouts, but those of a different kind: the bailouts of public defender systems which are not forthcoming.
As I’ve mentioned before, we are approaching a tipping point in the fight against constitutionally inadequate public defender systems across the country. The ‘sphere has been atwitter over the news that 14 public defenders in Minnesota have filed a labor grievance over excessive caseloads.
Yet the internet has been oddly silent about a battle on another front in nearby Michigan. In 2007, the ACLU of Michigan filed suit against three counties and sought to have their indigent defense systems declared unconstitutional and to have the state provide funding.
On April 14, 2010, the Michigan Supreme Court heard oral argument in an expedited appeal on the state’s motion to dismiss the lawsuit.You can view the oral argument here [and really, even if you ignore this entire post, make sure you watch the oral argument], and the briefs and other related documents are available here.
The oral argument, despite its premature stage, beautifully frames the core issues at play here: can defendants sue the State to ensure that they receive constitutionally adequate representation; whose duty is it to provide that representation; and just how difficult a task is it to prove that there is a systemic 6th Amendment failure?
[The oral argument is also noteworthy for other things, such as the Attorney General's complete butchering of Cronic and the conflation of the Strickland standard with the civil "injury" and of course, the proffer of the idea that any and all 6th Amendment violations can only be asserted after a conviction.]
The idea of a systemic failure, of course, is not difficult to grasp. States that leave the funding to individual local counties are bound to have an indigent defense system that is arbitrary and inconsistent.
It must be the State’s obligation to provide effective assistance of counsel to all defendants at all stages of a criminal proceeding. That is the only way to ensure that Gideon’s mandate is fulfilled.
Whether this lawsuit will achieve that goal remains to be seen. I suspect, however, that the ACLU and those bringing suit have another motive in mind: to force the state to legislate more funding, as has been done in other states and is currently being done in others still.
It seems that the strategy may be paying off already, at least in Michigan.
Going back to what I wrote earlier, it doesn’t matter what the mechanism employed is, as long as states are forced to confront the reality that their public defender systems are woefully inadequate and that the first step to fixing them is greater funding.
The battle has begun, the war will be won.