Blogs > The Law Blogger

The Law Blogger is a law-related blog that informs and discusses current matters of legal interest to readers of The Oakland Press and to consumers of legal services in the community. We hope readers will  find it entertaining but also informative. The Law Blogger does not, however, impart legal advice, as only attorneys are licensed to provide legal counsel.
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Saturday, March 27, 2010

ACLU Tests Constitutionality (i.e. Quality) of Court-Appointed Criminal Defense

Prior to the Civil War, Michigan was one of the first states to get in on the ground-floor of providing legal defense to the poor and the accused.  The constitutional right of the accused to an attorney was enshrined in the seminal case of Gideon v Wainwright, 372 US 335 (1963).

Things have changed.  Michigan has gone from the "first-floor" to the cellar in terms of the quality of court-appointed criminal defense; at least as measured in terms of compensation.

The ACLU is challenging the public defender system in the case of Duncan v State of Michigan.  The ACLU's brief argues that the quality of court-appointed legal defense in Berrien, Muskegon and Genesse Counties falls below the Sixth Amendment's guarantee of effective legal counsel.

The case was filed in the Ingham County Circuit Court where the trial judge certified Plaintiff's case as a class-action.

Defendants Governor Jennifer Granholm and the State of Michigan are represented by the Michigan Attorney General, Mike Cox.  The AG's brief asserts that the duty to appoint and compensate public defenders falls to the local circuit court judges.

The AG brought a motion for summary disposition which was denied by the trial court.  The court, however, granted the AG's motion to stay further proceedings until appeals from the decision were decided.  The Court of Appeals affirmed the Ingham Circuit Court's rulings granting class certification and denying summary disposition.  In a lengthily dissent, Appeals Judge William C. Whitbeck asserted that the case, which he described as a "fundamental challenge to Michigan’s system for operating and funding legal services for indigent criminal defendants" essentially could result in an unconstitutional violation of the separation of powers doctrine.

The case is scheduled for oral argument before the Michigan Supreme Court on April 13, 2010.  Meanwhile, the state legislature is considering HB 5676 which seeks to establish a state-wide public defender system, along with the essential funding.  The sponsors of the proposed legislation, Bob Constan and Justin Amash acknowledge they will have a very tough time to get this type of funding approved in the midst of the sustained economic downturn.

Never short on resources, however, the ACLU is bringing their game, on this same issue, to the United States Supreme Court in the case of Vermont v Brillon.

The ACLU's suit, and the proposed legislation have attracted national attention.  (The Law Blogger picked-up on a National Public Radio feature that addressed the critical state of Michigan's court-appointed criminal defense.)  The most likely result of all these efforts will be, "more of the same".  The defense bar will continue to soldier on, as underpaid under-resourced champions of the constitution.

Defendants, for the most part, will continue getting convicted.  No tears shed here, unless the accused is truly innocent.  Then it's a real tragedy as well as a threat to our individual rights and the criminal justice system.

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Sunday, March 14, 2010

Child Support Still Owed When Parental Rights Involuntarily Terminated

There has been some buzz among family law practitioners this week concerning the Michigan Court of Appeals' decision in the DHS vs Beck case.

The COA held that a father, so neglectful and abusive that his parental rights were terminated, nevertheless remained obligated to pay child support for his two children.  The decision, arising from an Oakland County abuse case, will be published and thus binding on all Michigan family courts.

The father did not appeal the termination of his parental rights; only the family court's ruling that he remained obligated to pay support for his children.  On appeal, the father argued that he was denied due process because he was arbitrarily deprived of his property (i.e. his support payments).  The intermediate appellate court, however, was unimpressed, ruling that the father failed to articulate how, exactly, his due process rights were implicated.

One of the issues to arise in the Beck case was that the parental termination provisions of the Juvenile Code are silent as to the corresponding "parental responsibilities".

The Court went on to analyze the rights and duties implicated by a family court's decision to terminate parental rights while continuing to obligate support payments.  Michigan common law has long established a minor child's right to support from both parents.  The Court also recognized a parent's right to the "companionship, care, custody and management of his or her children."

In upholding the Oakland County Family Court, the COA ruled that a child's right to support cannot be bargained away in a termination proceeding.  The Beck panel decided that if the legislature had intended to terminate a parent's obligations along with his parental rights, it would have said so in the statute.

The Court also relied on it's earlier decisions that held support obligations continued in the wake of a voluntary termination or adoption.

Also of note in the dicta of the Court's decision was an express acknowledgment of the current "times of difficult financial circumstances."  The Beck panel realized that in such difficult economic times, public policy is served by not shifting all support and maintenance obligations onto the custodial parent or, in some cases, the state.

Finally, in deciding the case, the COA was careful to avoid the unintended consequence of encouraging the neglect and abuse of innocent children by seeking a parental termination.  Since an irresponsible parent cannot escape his support obligations by abusing or neglecting his children, the better interests of those children are served.

This is a sound decision by the intermediate appellate court.  Good thing the COA granted father's delayed application for leave to appeal (a discretionary appeal as opposed to an appeal of right). This case should have a positive effect on the charging and collection of child support.

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Tuesday, March 2, 2010

Second Amendment Litigant is Unlikely Handgun Advocate

Otis McDonald grew tired of the pattern of intimidation brought to bear upon him by some of the drug-dealing urban youth of his Chicagoland neighborhood.  At times, they would curse him and brandish their weapons just a few feet from his porch in Chicago's Morgan Park.  According to McDonald, some of these "punks" even threatened to "put him down."

Consequently, McDonald sought to even the odds by acquiring a gun, even if it meant he had to violate Chicago's anti-handgun ordinance to do it.

The 76-year old South-side Democrat, a retired grandfather and journeyman building engineer, who spent his career at the University of Chicago after serving in the military, is the petitioner in a case up for oral argument today at the United States Supreme Court.

An unlikely advocate for the right to "bear arms", at least in the organized sense, McDonald is not a card-carrying member of the NRA.  That group, however, will join him today in addressing the High Court and requesting that the handgun ban be struck down as unconstitutional.

This Blog has been tracking the case, as some of the high-crime issues underpinning Chicago's handgun ban are relevant to the communities of Southeast Michigan.  One of our earlier posts covered the lawyers arguing the case today.

There seems to be a consensus among legal professionals that Chicago's ordinance is likely to be declared unconstitutional.  Today, the City of Chicago, through it's retained Washington D.C. appellate lawyer, is expected to argue the safety interests such a ban serves in high-crime areas.

The consensus among High Court watchers that the handgun ordinance will be struck is based on the Court's recent decision striking-down a similar anti-gun law in the nation's capital.  The Supreme Court's decision in District of Columbia vs Heller, however, does not apply to the states since it arose in the District.

There are many reasons Americans feel a deep-rooted sense of righteousness when it comes to our right to possess and carry firearms.  It's in our historic genes; our national tradition.  Otis McDonald, on the other hand, acquired his taste for the right to bear arms out of good old-fashioned necessity.  In order to feel safe in his own crime-ridden neighborhood and to protect his family from local thugs, he armed himself in transgression of Chicago's gun ordinance.

As a result, Law Professor Nicholas Johnson of Fordham University claims that Otis McDonald will be immortalized as a litigant in one of the rare cases that becomes common knowledge among our citizenry and stands for a single proposition; in this case, the right to bear arms.

Local Connection:  Michigan Attorney General Mike Cox joined the NRA in filing an amicus brief in Otis McDonald's case.

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