LOCATION: Texas State Capitol
DOCKET NO.: 03-10198
DECIDED BY: Rehnquist Court (1986-2005)
LOWER COURT: Michigan Supreme Court
CITATION: 545 US 605 (2005)
GRANTED: Jan 07, 2005
ARGUED: Apr 25, 2005
DECIDED: Jun 23, 2005
Bernard E. Restuccia - argued the cause for Respondent
David A. Moran - argued the cause for Petitioner
Gene C. Schaerr - argued the cause for Respondent
Facts of the case
Halbert pleaded no contest in a Michigan court to two counts of criminal sexual conduct. The day after Halbert's sentence was imposed, Halbert moved to withdraw his plea. The trial court denied the motion and told Halbert the property remedy for his complaint was the state appellate court. Michigan required a defendant convicted on a guilty or no contest plea to apply for leave of appeal to the state appellate court. Halbert asked the trial court twice to appoint counsel to help him with his application. The trial court refused. Without counsel, Halbert still applied for leave to appeal, which the court of appeals denied. The state supreme court also denied Halbert's application for leave to appeal to that court.
Did the due process and equal protection clauses require the appointment of counsel for defendants, convicted on their pleas, who sought access to a Michigan appellate court?
Media for Halbert v. MichiganAudio Transcription for Oral Argument - April 25, 2005 in Halbert v. Michigan
Audio Transcription for Opinion Announcement - June 23, 2005 in Halbert v. Michigan
William H. Rehnquist:
The opinions of the court in two cases will be announced by Justice Ginsburg.
Ruth Bader Ginsburg:
The first case is Halbert against Michigan No.03-10198.
The Federal Constitution’s Due Process and Equal Protection Clauses, we have held, oblige a state to appoint counsel for indigent criminal defendants including defendants found guilty after trial who seek to appeal from their convictions.
The question presented in this case, does that right to counsel extend to poor persons who are convicted on guilty or no contest pleas but wish to pursue certain issues on appeal, for example, errors made determining the length of their sentences or their inadequate representation by counsel in the Trial Court proceedings.
Petitioner, Halbert was convicted of criminal sexual conduct on a no contest plea in a Michigan Trial Court.
He is unable to pay for counsel.
Until 1994, Michigan accorded defendants who plead guilty or no contest a right to appeal and appointed counsel if the defendant was too poor to pay.
By amendment to the State’s Constitution and corresponding statutory change, Michigan adopted its current system under which defendants who entered guilty or no contest pleas have no automatic right to appeal, they must petition for leave to do so, and except for certain circumstances specified in the governing statute, they do not have a right to state provided counsel to assist them in seeking leave to appeal.
Halbert requested but was denied appointment of a lawyer to aid him in presenting an application for leave to appeal.
Left to act on his own, Halbert applied for leave to appeal to the Michigan Court of Appeals.
That court denied his application using the boiler plate expression for lack of merit in the grounds presented.
The Michigan Supreme Court thereafter declined to consider his case.
Halbert maintains that the Federal Constitution's access to court guarantees render Michigan’s current law invalid.
We agree and accordingly vacate the judgment of the Michigan Court of Appeals.
Two prior decisions of this Court guide today’s judgment: The first Douglas v. California decided in 1963 held that when a first appeal is a matter of right, counsel must be appointed to represent a defendant too poor to engage a lawyer; the second Ross v. Moffitt decided in 1974 concerns second-tier review by a state's highest court review that is not a matter of right but requires court permission.
We held counsel need not be appointed for such second-tier discretionary review.
Halbert’s case falls between those two guiding decisions.
He seeks access to first year review.
Review in an Intermediate Appellate Court and to that extent, his case is like Douglas.
But under Michigan law the appeal Halbert seeks though first level is not a matter of right, so in that regard, his case is like Ross.
For reasons detailed in our opinion, we hold that Halbert's case is properly ranked with Douglas rather than Ross.
Accordingly the State must appoint counsel to help Halbert apply for leave to pursue his first and likely only appeal.
Two factors are of prime importance to our ruling: First, Michigan’s Intermediate Appellate Court rules on leave applications by deciding whether the applicants claim has sufficient merit to warrant full consideration.
Review in the states’ highest court in contrast is determined not by the presence of errors in the Trial Court proceedings but generally by the public importance of the issue presented.
There is thus a considerable difference between highest court discretionary review and first-tier inspection of a conviction by an Intermediate Appellate Court whether upright or on application.
Second, the indigent defendant is ill equipped to navigate without counsel’s aim, Michigan’ complex procedures for seeking leave to appeal.
Unlike second-tier review, at the first appellate tier, there will have been no prior examination of the case by an appellate counsel and court.
Moreover, the typical defendant in Halbert situation has had little education, many like Halbert himself suffer learning disabilities or mental impairments.
We note too that Halbert did not intelligently forego any appeal right when Halbert elected to plea no contest the Trial Court did not conveyed to him in plain English that if he gave up his right to trial he will have to pursue any appeal from his conviction or sentence on his own.
Justice Thomas has filed a dissenting opinion joined in full by Justice Scalia and in part by the Chief Justice.