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Monday, July 18, 2005

Halbert: Michigan must provide counsel on first-tier appeal

In Halbert v. Michigan, No. 03-10198 (U.S. June 23, 2005), the Supreme Court held that the Due Process and Equal Protection Clauses require the appointment of counsel for defendants, convicted on based on their pleas, who seek access to first-tier review (direct appeal) in the Michigan Court of Appeals. The Court thus reaffirmed its holding in Douglas v.California, 372 U.S. 353 (1963), that, in criminal proceedings, a State must provide counsel for an indigent defendant in a first appeal as of right. The Court distinguished Ross v. Moffit, 417 U.S. 600 (1974) in which it held that a State need not appoint counsel to aid a poor person seeking to pursue a second-tier discretionary appeal to the State's highest court or certiorari review to the U.S. Supreme Court. The Michigan constitution was amended to provide that "an appeal by an accused who pleads guilty or nolo contendere shall be by leave of court." Mich. Const., art. I, § 20. Despite the discretionary nature of such an appeal, the Court looked at the function of the state appellate court vis-a-vis the state supreme court and ruled that the appellate court fell within the Douglas category rather than the Ross category. Key to its decision was the fact that the appellate court sat as an error-correcting court deciding the merits of the case and that an indigent defendant was ill-equipped to represent himself on direct appeal.