LANSING, MI –
The state Supreme Court heard arguments Wednesday regarding a challenge to Michigan's system for providing lawyers to criminal defendants who can't afford an attorney. The American Civil Liberties Union says Michigan is violating the constitution by failing to ensure every defendant gets a good lawyer.
The Supreme Court arguments attracted a lot of spectators. After the hearing, many of them gathered on the steps of the Michigan Hall of Justice, including a woman waiting for the day her husband is released from prison.
"My name is Amiko Kensu and my husband's been incarcerated for 23 years," she declared.
Her husband Frederick is serving life without parole for murder for a shooting in Saint Clair County. Kensu says her husband had an alibi, but his court-appointed attorney was stoned and drunk through much of the trial. He was later disbarred, but not for this case.
Kensu says technicalities have kept her husband from winning a new trial, which would not be necessary if he had been assigned a competent public defender.
"All of these issues have just kind of been ignored in appeals and what actually happened and the harm pre-trial and in trial have never been addressed and for 23 years this man has been in prison, innocent of the crimes he was convicted of," she said.
Eighty percent of criminal defendants in Michigan have court-appointed lawyers.
National studies rank Michigan among the bottom states in terms of ensuring a proper legal defense for people too poor to pay for their own lawyers.
Michigan is one of only seven states that do not have a statewide criminal defense system. Instead, every county has its own way of providing legal counsel to indigent defendants. The American Civil Liberties Union says in some counties, public defenders are inexperienced, underpaid, and overburdened with too many cases. ACLU attorney Mark Granzatto told the justices of the Supreme Court it's not possible for those lawyers to do a good job for their clients.
"The constitution, as it's been interpreted by the United States Supreme Court, not only guarantees you a lawyer, but it guarantees that the lawyer be effective," he said. "You can't separate those two."
Granzatto says keeping people in prison while they challenge their convictions based on ineffective assistance of counsel is also a violation of their constitutional rights.
Assistant state attorney general Ann Sherman says fixing that problem, if there is a problem, is up to the governor and the Legislature, not the courts.
"This case is about funding, and only the Legislature can appropriate funding," she said. "The sweeping relief these plaintiffs ask of the state and the governor would require funding and it will require restructuring, massive restructuring of the state's indigent defense system."
Sherman asked the Supreme Court to dismiss the lawsuit.
She also says a ruling against the state could lead eventually to courts becoming clogged with new appeals of criminal convictions.
Estimates suggest fixing Michigan's indigent defense system could cost as much as $165 million. Counties currently spend about $72 million on criminal defense attorneys.
The Supreme Court has until late in the summer to issue its ruling. Even if the court orders the case to go to trial, it could be years before the question is resolved.
Efforts in the Legislature to fix Michigan's legal defense system have been inching along very slowly. Senate Republican leaders on the issue say they want to first see what the courts decide.