Duly Noted

State Bar heralds passage of indigent defense reform

The Michigan Legislature took a major step forward in assuring the constitutional rights of persons accused of crimes with both houses passing reform bills (House 4529 and Senate 301) with strong bipartisan support, establishing  standards for indigent defense in Michigan, and creating a foundation for fair and adequate funding.

State Bar of Michigan President Bruce A. Courtade called the development “game-changing” and “a transformative first step” in making sure that a person’s constitutional rights are no longer placed at risk because he or she cannot afford a lawyer. “Indigent defense has been a glaring weakness in Michigan and a source of concern for everyone who cherishes our constitution and the rights it establishes,” he said. “We have been identified as having one of the worst indigent defense systems in our nation, and that’s simply unacceptable... We have a lot of work ahead of us, but this legislation gives us many of the tools we need to provide equal protection and access to justice for the poorest among us. Personally and on behalf of the State Bar of Michigan, I want to thank members of the legislature, past and present, who supported this, particularly the primary sponsors Rep. Tom McMillin and Sen. Bruce Caswell, as well as Gov. Rick Snyder for his unwavering support.”

Michigan started out as a national leader in defending the rights of the accused – the right to an attorney was granted to all citizens in the state’s first constitution in 1835. But the next 150 years saw a steady decline; Michigan recently ranked near the bottom in providing for indigent defense.

In 2002, the SBM Representative Assembly became the first governing body of any state bar association to adopt the American Bar Association’s 10 Principles of a Public Defense Delivery System. The principles, the basis for the State Bar’s advocacy, are reflected in the legislation.

In 2008 the National Legal Aid and Defender Association issued a report, “A Race to the Bottom – Speed & Savings Over Due Process: A Constitutional Crisis,” which highlighted the problems in Michigan’s system and named the State Bar as an important ally in the fight to right them.

A U.S. House of Representatives Committee on the Judiciary subcommittee held a hearing in 2009 on the constitutional crisis in Michigan and 10 other states. Former State Bar presidents Dennis Archer and Nancy Diehl were among those who testified.

In 2011, the SBM Judicial Crossroads Task Force Report and Recommendations advised that Michigan’s inadequate indigent defense system needed immediate attention. Gov. Snyder appointed a bipartisan Indigent Defense Advisory Commission, which issued a report recommending sweeping reforms for trial level indigent defense services and the creation of a state commission to oversee local public defense services.

Gov. Snyder signed the bill, now Act 93 of 2013, into law on July 1.