Trumpeting hard truths about Gideon v. Wainwright

By John Masson

Michigan Law Communications

On the recent 50th anniversary of the Supreme Court's landmark decision in Gideon v. Wainwright, which was meant to guarantee legal representation for poor people, dozens of Michigan Law students gathered to listen to two experts on the current state of indigent representation in Michigan and elsewhere.

Mike Steinberg, legal director of the Michigan ACLU, shared his insights on what he called Michigan's broken indigent defense system, while Professor. Janet Moore of the University of Cincinnati College of Law discussed the complex Constitutional roots of the right to counsel, gave an example of a ''broken system'' case, and outlined some strategies for promoting public defense reform.

''There are two systems in Michigan and they're separate and unequal,'' Steinberg said, of the state's criminal defense. ''There's one for the poor, and one for the wealthy. ...The indigent defense system in Michigan is broken, and we all lose.''

The reason everybody loses, he said, is simple: jailing people is expensive. Jailing them for crimes they didn't commit--or for longer than necessary for crimes they actually did commit, simply because they received shoddy legal representation--isn't exactly a good investment.

''We all know it costs a lot of money to put people behind bars,'' he said. ''So we're wasting a lot of money.''

A particular problem in Michigan is that the state has abdicated its responsibility to run an indigent defense system, Steinberg said. Counties essentially run their own systems, so while some counties are able to provide adequate representation, others simply let the lowest bidder represent indigent defendants, with the predictable result of overloaded attorneys and inexorable pressure to get clients to take plea deals.

Those and similar problems prompted the Michigan ACLU to file suit against the state in 2007, arguing in particular that defendants in Berrien, Muskegon, and Genesee counties weren't being properly represented. The case continues to work its way through the system.

Moore began her portion of the talk by noting that the Gideon decision had a twin, Douglas v. California, that was issued by the high court the same day and which took more of an equal protection tack with regard to criminal appeals by the poor.

''You can't force poor folks to run a gauntlet rich folks aren't forced to run to get their cases heard,'' she said.

Moore also alluded to the immense responsibility shouldered by criminal defense lawyers, who hold the lives of their clients in their hands--sometimes literally. ''When you're attorneys, you're going to have tremendous deference given to the decisions you make,'' she said. ''And because of that, you have to be diligent.''

The talk was presented by Michigan Law's Prisoners' Rights Organization of Students and sponsored by the Law School's chapters of the American Civil Liberties Union, the American Constitution Society, Human Rights Advocates, Criminal Law Society, and Poverty Law Society.

Published: Thu, Apr 11, 2013