Standards proposed for court-appointed attorneys

Michigan Supreme Court will hear public comment on proposal Wednesday

GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. (WOOD) — For the first time, Michigan may adopt minimum standards for court-appointed attorneys.

This week, the Michigan Supreme Court will hear public comment on the first four proposed standards, which were created by the Michigan Indigent Defense Commission.

“It’s hard to argue that we’re doing the best we can,” said former Barry County Judge James Fisher, who chairs that commission. “We are hoping that we will establish minimum standards for education, training, experience, so that a lawyer’s ability, experience and training will match up with the complexity of the cases to which they are assigned.”

The recommendations include:

  • A minimum standard for the education and training of defense counsel, including continuing education.
  • A minimum standard for investigations and experts (if needed).
  • Having attorneys appointed earlier so there will representation at the first appearance and other critical stages of the court process.
  • A minimum standard for the initial client interview, including requiring an initial interview within 72 hours of being appointed of the client is in jail.

>>PDF: The recommendations

“You can imagine what it must be like to be sitting there charged with a felony case and you haven’t even met the person you are depending on to get you out of this fix,” said Fred Johnson, the director of the Muskegon County Office of the Public Defender. “The defendants lose confidence in the system, they lose confidence in their lawyers’ willingness or ability to help them. But it goes beyond that. Every one of those defendants have families, and they have friends, and most of those family and friends are law-abiding and when they see what happens to their family and friends, when they see that your brother has been charged with a felony and he hasn’t even met his lawyer for the first 21 days, what does that do to what you think the system is all about? You think it is corrupt.”

Michigan doesn’t have a common system of indigent defense. Instead, each county is responsible to create and fund its own system to represent the poor. Some counties do a better job than others, though Fisher says many are likely not meeting the standards required under the U.S. Constitution.

>>PDF: See what your county does

In 2007, two West Michigan men joined a lawsuit challenging the state’s indigent defense system. Their complaint was against Muskegon County’s old system. Brian Secrest and Christopher Manies claimed their court-appointed lawyers never met with them until just before their preliminary hearings, and then just for a couple minutes. They say their lawyers had never heard their side of the case, but already had plea deals for the men to consider. Both say that after the preliminary hearing, their lawyers disappeared for months, making it impossible for them to help mount a defense.

Cases like that led Muskegon County to create its Public Defender’s Office in 2014.

“In the county of Muskegon, your access to justice doesn’t depend on your ability to pay for it,” Johnson, the director of that office, said.

His team of lawyers display their court wins on the wall of their office.

“Since we’ve been open in two years, there have been 13 acquittals at trial. Twelve of them have been lawyers from this office,” he said.

Muskegon’s office is often cited as a model for other communities looking to make a similar change.

Some may wonder why they should care about public defenders and court-appointed attorneys.

“Even if you never need one, just knowing that you live in a society that provides for justice, that has value to all of us,” Fisher said.

“If you live a reasonably long life, you are going to know somebody who is going to need our services,” Johnson said. “We represent more children than we do adults. If someone is accused of neglect and abuse, their children get a lawyer as well as the parents, and so we represent all those children.”

The state Supreme Court will hear public comment on the proposed standards Wednesday, but the Michigan Indigent Defense Commission’s work is far from done. It has identified a number of other issues.

“Michigan ranks 44th in the country (in funding). Just to get us up to average would cost about $50 million a year,” Fisher said.

Currently, each county funds its system in its own way. For example, some only pay attorneys for one client visit in jail. Other visits are unpaid. Other counties pay lawyers a flat fee per case and those fees vary widely by county. There is also no standard for maximum caseloads.

“In some of the metropolitan areas like Detroit, Wayne County lawyers might handle hundreds of cases. I have been told some lawyers have been appointed over 1,000 misdemeanor cases in year,” Fisher said. “You can do the math easily. If you had a caseload of 300 felonies, that would be six felonies a week.”

The commission hopes to address these issues in a second set of recommendations proposed to the Supreme Court next year. There will also likely be a push in Lansing to get the state to help fund these systems.

“The first four standards are in areas where we felt … the political opposition would not be too great,” Fisher explained. “We didn’t want to take on the more controversial issues initially. So we dealt with some more basic things, but now we’re working on the next set of recommendations that we plan to take to the Supreme Court a year from now for things like compensation, independence from the judiciary, workload controls and this sort of thing.”

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