Oakland County sues state over lawyers for the poor
Pontiac — Oakland County sued the state Tuesday, alleging that changes to Michigan’s system of providing attorneys for indigent defendants are unconstitutional.
Indigent defendants are those who request a court-appointed attorney in criminal cases because they cannot afford their own lawyer.
The Oakland County lawsuit seeks a stay of a county compliance plan due in November. It was filed in the Michigan Court of Claims and names as defendants the state of Michigan, the Michigan Department of Licensing and Regulatory Affairs and the Michigan Indigent Defense Commission.
The Court of Claims is where all legal disputes against the state are filed and heard by a judge. The lawsuit was filed in Oakland County’s Court of Claims field office in Troy in advance of a Friday deadline for objecting to changes in the state act, approved by the legislature this past year.
The suit alleges that the 2013 Michigan Indigent Defense Commission Act and amendments approved earlier this year violate the state constitution by usurping the Michigan Supreme Court’s authority to set rules governing the practice of law.
Oakland County’s corporation counsel, Keith Lerminiaux, said the lawsuit is not intended to deny poor people legal representation.
“We all agree that individuals charged with a crime in Michigan have a constitutional right to legal representation even if they cannot afford a lawyer,” he said in a statement. “But any changes aimed at our legal system must be constitutional.”
Megan Hawthorne, a spokeswoman for state Attorney General Bill Schuette, declined to comment on the lawsuit.
The lawsuit alleges the MIDC established its rules and procedures in violation of the state constitution and Michigan’s Administrative Procedures Act. Among allegations:
■The MIDC Act authorizes the commission to regulate the practice of law, a violation of the separation of powers doctrine of the Michigan Constitution and is therefore unconstitutional.
■The MIDC Act and standards approved by LARA are invalid because they infringe on the Michigan Supreme Court’s constitutional authority to set rules governing the practice of law and state court procedures.
According to Oakland County, the lawsuit hints at violations of the Headlee Amendment, which requires the state to reimburse local governmental units for any new state-mandated programs.
“The legislature did not authorize the MIDC and staff to dictate who a local funding unit should hire to run its indigent defense program, set arbitrary limits on building renovations required by the MIDC Act, or dictate what are “allowable” expenditures by local funding units in compliance plans,” the suit says.
Oakland County plans to restructure operations to take over delivery of indigent defense services and renovate the county courthouse and county jail to comply with the MIDC Act and state-approved standards, Lerminiaux said.
Lerminiaux said the lawsuit’s focus is for relief for Oakland County but it could affect how standards are implemented statewide.
No date is set for when the matter may be heard in the Court of Claims, he said.
Indigent defense services is one of several issues Oakland County Executive L. Brooks Patterson is expected to discuss Wednesday night in his 2017-19 budget message to the county Board of Commissioners.
The county budgets about $3 million annually for indigent defense services.