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.
Continue reading below
A Defender’s Guide to Federal Evidence: A Trial Practice Handbook for Criminal Defense Attorneys
This Guide to Federal Evidence is the only federal evidence handbook written exclusively for criminal defense lawyers. The Guide analyzes each Federal Rule of Evidence and outlines the main evidentiary issues that confront criminal defense lawyers. It also summarizes countless defense favorable cases and provides tips on how to avoid common evidentiary pitfalls. The Guide contains multiple user-friendly flowcharts aimed at helping the criminal defense lawyer tackle evidence problems. A Defender’s Guide to Federal Evidence is an indispensable tool in preparing a case for trial.
Modern Digital Evidence & Technologies in Criminal Cases
Modern cases need modern defenses, and modern lawyers can't practice with an outdated playbook. This program is a contemporary training that identifies emerging technologies and digital evidence encountered in today's criminal cases and arms you with the tools necessary to combat expert witnesses, prosecutorial overreach, and an uneducated judge and jury. This comprehensive CLE program covers both general aspects of new technologies as well as practical courtroom application and legal challenges to the use of these new technologies.
Top Shelf DUI Defenses: The Law, The Science, The Techniques (2021)
If you are serious about being an effective DUI defense advocate, or if you’re considering adding DUI defenses to your portfolio, you need to know the latest scientific and legal strategies to optimize your success at trial. Learn from the best-of-the-best in the field in this unique CLE Program, updated for 2021.
Defending Modern Drug Cases (2021)
From challenging the arrest and seizure to picking a jury and cross-examining police officers, defense attorneys handling drug cases must be able to construct a defense that will increase the chances of the client getting a positive result for your client.
Effective motion practice, juror selection, and storytelling have never been more important. This seminar will introduce defense counsel to techniques that have been used at recent drug trials to rebut specific claims and overcome the emotion created in today’s criminal legal system.
NACDL Communications Department
The National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers is the preeminent organization advancing the mission of the criminal defense bar to ensure justice and due process for persons accused of crime or wrongdoing. A professional bar association founded in 1958, NACDL's many thousands of direct members in 28 countries – and 90 state, provincial and local affiliate organizations totaling up to 40,000 attorneys – include private criminal defense lawyers, public defenders, military defense counsel, law professors and judges committed to preserving fairness and promoting a rational and humane criminal legal system.