The Michigan Legislature has taken a major step forward in assuring the constitutional rights of persons accused of crimes in Michigan. House Bill 4529 and Senate Bill 301 received strong bipartisan support, established the first statewide standards for indigent defense in Michigan, and created a foundation for fair and adequate funding statewide.
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 simply 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. With the passage of this legislation we have turned a corner. 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 the members of the legislature, past and present, who supported this initiative, 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 a right granted to all citizens in the state's first Constitution in 1835. But the next 150 years saw a steady decline, with Michigan recently ranked near the very bottom in terms of protecting the rights of the accused.
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 in 2002. The principles, which served as the basis for the State Bar's advocacy, are reflected in the legislation passed today.
In 2008 the National Legal Aid and Defender Association issued a report called "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.
The U.S. House of Representatives Committee on the Judiciary Subcommittee on Crime, Terrorism, and Homeland Security 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 the costs and constitutional crisis caused by Michigan's inadequate indigent defense system needed immediate attention, even in the face of daunting budget challenges. Later that year Gov. Rick Snyder appointed a bipartisan Indigent Defense Advisory Commission to recommend improvements to the system. This group, composed of attorneys, judges, prosecutors, defense attorneys, and members of the public, issued a report that recommended sweeping reforms for trial level indigent defense services and the creation of a state commission to oversee local public defense services.
The State Bar had several valuable partners in the fight for reform, most importantly the Campaign for Justice, the American Civil Liberties Union of Michigan, and the Criminal Defense Attorneys of Michigan.
State Bar of Michigan Executive Director Janet Welch applauded the legislature and said the State Bar will continue to advocate for an effective indigent defense delivery system in the years ahead.
"We are thrilled that the legislature has taken this historic step toward making the Sixth Amendment right to assistance of counsel a reality in Michigan." she said. "The State Bar is proud to have been a leader in this long fight, and will continue to work to protect the weakest among us."