Monday, June 27, 2005

There’s no equal justice if your access to the courts depends on how much money you have

Overlooked in the commotion over the Supreme Court’s eminent domain decision last week was its ruling in Halbert v. Michigan which bolstered indigent defendants’ access to equal justice.

The court struck down a Michigan law which required indigent defendants -- and only indigent defendants -- to waive their right to an appellate attorney in order to enter a plea of not guilty or no contest.

Michigan is the only state with such a law. But 17 other states (not Florida) backed its case and presumably were primed to enact such a law if the Supremes said okay.

So why does a guy who pleaded guilty need to appeal? In Antonio Halbert’s case, the sentence he received wasn’t what he had agreed to. Mistakes were made on the scoresheet used to determine the length of his sentence. As a result, Halbert faced a longer prison term than he should have.

Disputes over sentences aren’t unusual. Michigan had a backlog of more than 4,000 cases before the appeals court. One-third were from defendants who had pleaded guilty, and most were seeking reduced sentences.

For more information on how indigent defense is funded, check out Indefensible’s June 22 post.


At 8:25 AM, Anonymous Juan Paxety said...

20-years ago, I practiced law in Georgia. The county had no public defender's office and the court required private lawyers to take indigent cases. In some ways, I like that system - it avoids the clubishness that sometimes develops between full-time public defenders and the assistant DAs they see every day.

Except for pay. Rates were $10 per hour for out-of-court time and $20 per hour in court. If a bill of more than a couple of hundred dollars was submitted, the lawyer had to go before a board and justify his expenses. The board was chaired by the husband of an assistant district attorney. The fees finally paid were usually lower than the bill submitted.

It simply was not enough money to keep a law office open - much less provide the lawyer with a wage.

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