In Chippewa County, where do you suppose clients meet with their court-appointed attorney to discuss their case? In the bathroom.
That’s right. The court provides no place where these lawyers can meet privately with their clients. Instead, they wait in line to bring their clients into a unisex bathroom across from the judge’s chambers to hurriedly discuss their cases.
That’s from the report the legislature commissioned from the non-partisan, non-profit National Legal Aid and Defender Association. In fact, the title is an excellent snapshot of what’s wrong with the system: “A Race to the Bottom: Speed and Savings Over Due Process. A Constitutional Crisis.”
Indeed, you could make the argument that those words cover pretty much everything that’s wrong with Michigan these days. We want to do everything quick and cheap, from educating our children to fixing our roads. Then we are perpetually astonished that we don’t get good results. I am pretty used to seeing governmental failures. But the revelations about Michigan public defenders shocked even me.
Actually, I shouldn’t have been surprised. I remember covering the various Kevorkian trials in a number of Michigan counties. From time to time, they would recess the proceedings for a bit, and drag in what Tom Wolfe called “the chow” of the legal system.
These were indigent clients represented by court-appointed counsel, nearly all of whom had encouraged their charges to plead guilty to lesser offenses. The judge, prosecutor and defense attorneys appeared to be in total cahoots, and would drone rapidly through the proceedings while the dazed or sullen defendant stood there. Once, in Wayne County, one defendant interrupted to suddenly plead his innocence. The judge was annoyed.
“I thought you had your client on board.”
“I’m sorry, your honor,” he defense council whimpered. “Bring him back tomorrow,” the judge intoned. God knows what they did to him then.
The new report says prosecutors and defense lawyers are even more in cahoots in Ottawa County, where they call their system “McJustice.”
Now, I know what a lot of people will say.
These defendants are mostly low-lifes. Our state is cash-strapped. We don’t need to pay more to provide these people with Cadillac counsel at taxpayer expense.
That’s a nice theory. The state of Florida used to have an even better one. They refused to provide poor people with lawyers at all, unless accused of murder. Then a poor guy named Gideon was arrested and wrote a letter to the U.S. Supreme Court on the only medium he had, toilet paper.
That resulted in a unanimous 1963 decision that counsel be provided to everyone. Not doing so is a denial of due process.
Doing so poorly and unfairly could someday be ruled a denial of due process as well. Not fixing this system could, in the end, cost us much more than fixing it would.
You’d think we oughta know that by now.