Washington, DC (June 23, 2005) -- The United States Supreme Court today held unconstitutional a Michigan law that greatly restricted the right to counsel on appeal for poor people who wish to challenge their sentence after pleading guilty. The decision in Halbert v. Michigan, No. 03-10198, is an important victory for proponents of a fair criminal justice system.
The Michigan law at issue in Halbert prohibited the appointment of appellate counsel to indigent defendants who have pled guilty or nolo contendere unless they fell within extremely limited exceptions. Michigan is the only state in the country that currently denies appointed counsel under these circumstances. Today’s decision will end that practice.
“I am very pleased with the decision,” said Professor David Moran, who represented Mr. Halbert in the Supreme Court. “Over 90 percent of felony convictions are obtained by guilty plea. This law denied all of those people their right to effectively challenge their sentences on appeal through competent counsel.”
“Over 30 percent of such sentencing appeals, historically, have been reversed in Michigan, which shows that mistakes happen at the trial court level and that the appellate court must be effective watchdogs,” added Kary Moss, Executive Director of the ACLU of Michigan.
Mr. Halbert's case proves this point. The judge had incorrectly scored the sentencing guidelines, resulting in a prison sentence almost three years longer than he should have received. “Michigan denied Mr. Halbert any chance of getting the error corrected because he is poor, while a defendant with money would be able to hire an attorney to correct the erroneous sentence,” said Moran.
Halbert’s learning disability forced him to rely on other inmates to prepare his appeal, even though he specifically requested a lawyer be appointed to help him. In the more than 40 years since the Gideon decision, the Supreme Court has recognized in over ten cases that access to competent defense counsel is a critical part of the criminal justice system.
“The scales of justice do not function unless they start out balanced. To be balanced, the defense must be as well-resourced and able as the prosecution,” said Malia Brink, Indigent Defense Counsel for NACDL.
“Michigan is part of a small group of states that is trying to increase expediency and cut costs by short-changing poor defendants. But this is penny wise and pound foolish. Unbalanced criminal justice systems, lead to costly errors, including increased appeals, unwarranted jail time, exonerations and the associated civil rights cases,” said Brink.
The decision also recognizes that indigent defendants need greater protection, not less. “Indigent defendants have a particularly difficult time navigating the appeals system because, as a group, these individuals are the poorest, least educated, and least literate members of our society,” added Anthony Franze of Arnold & Porter, one of the authors of the NACDL amicus brief filed in support of Mr. Halbert.
Seventeen other states, including Louisiana, South Carolina, and Texas filed a friend of the court brief in support of Michigan, suggesting that this procedure, if upheld, could have become a national trend. “The kind of justice a person receives should not depend on whether someone is wealthy or poor,” said Brink. “We sincerely hope that this most recent admonition to the State’s to ensure that poor people accused of crimes receive competent counsel is well-heeded, not just in Michigan, but across the nation.”
To download the Brief in support of Halbert from the ACLU of Michigan site, click here.
To download NACDL's amicus curiae brief, click here.
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