Kowalski v. Tesmer

PETITIONER:John F. Kowalski, Judge, 26th Judicial Circuit Court of Michigan, et al.
RESPONDENT:John C. Tesmer, et al.
LOCATION:Meramec River

DOCKET NO.: 03-407
DECIDED BY: Rehnquist Court (1986-2005)
LOWER COURT: United States Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit

CITATION: 543 US 125 (2004)
GRANTED: Jan 20, 2004
ARGUED: Oct 04, 2004
DECIDED: Dec 13, 2004

David A. Moran – argued the cause for Respondents
Thomas L. Casey – argued the cause for Petitioners

Facts of the case

A 1994 amendment to the Michigan constitution said criminal defendants who pled guilty had no right to appeal and could appeal only with the permission of a state appellate court. Michigan then enacted a law that said in most cases judges could not appoint appellate lawyers for indigent defendants who pled guilty. Two criminal attorneys and three indigent defendants who were denied appointed appellate lawyers filed a single suit alleging the state law violated the 14th Amendment’s due process and equal protection clauses. The district court ruled that the indigents had standing to sue and that the lawyers who sued with them had the right to sue as third-party representatives of the rights of indigents. A federal appellate court agreed the statute was unconstitutional, but based this only on the lawyers’ claims. The court said the U.S. Supreme Court’s 1971 decision in Younger v. Harris required it to abstain from hearing the indigents’ claims because the indigents were involved in related proceedings in state court.


(1) Does the 14th Amendment guarantee an indigent criminal defendant convicted by a guilty plea the right to an appointed appellate attorney in a discretionary first appeal? (2) Do attorneys have third-party standing on behalf of potential indigent defendants to make a constitutional challenge to a state statute prohibiting appointment of appellate counsel in discretionary first appeals following convictions by guilty pleas?

Media for Kowalski v. Tesmer

Audio Transcription for Oral Argument – October 04, 2004 in Kowalski v. Tesmer

Audio Transcription for Opinion Announcement – December 13, 2004 in Kowalski v. Tesmer

Antonin Scalia:

I also have an opinion to announce on behalf of the Chief Justice in case No. 03-407, Kowalski versus Tesmer.

That case came to us on a writ of certiorari to the United States Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit.

Michigan provides that an appeal by an accused who has plead guilty is by leave of court not a matter of right.

Michigan state judges must deny appointed appellate counsel to indigents who plead guilty and do not meet certain criteria.

Two attorneys and three indigents challenged Michigan’s procedure for appointing appellate counsel in Federal District Court.

They alleged that the procedure violated the equal protection and due process rights of the indigents.

The District Court agreed.

The Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit heard the case en banc and affirmed in relevant part.

It held that the two attorneys had standing to bring the suit although the three indigent defendants had to be dismissed on the basis of the so-called Younger doctrine which prevents Federal Court interference with on going state criminal proceedings.

We granted certiorari.

Today in an opinion by the Chief Justice we hold that the two attorney respondents lack third party standing to assert the rights of the indigents.

Accordingly we reverse without reaching the constitutionality of the Michigan procedures.

A party generally must assert his own rights and not on those of another.

Under the doctrine of third party standing however we have made an exception in to this general rule.

To determine whether third party standing is appropriate we have focused on two questions.

We have asked first whether the person asserting the right has a close relationship with the person possessing the right?

And second whether there is a hindrance to the possessors ability to protect his own right?

Here, the attorneys attempt to assert the right of hypothetical indigent defendants who will request in the future but be denied appellate counsel under Michigan?s procedure.

We do not believe these attorneys have a close relationship with these hypothetical indigents.

Indeed they do not have no relationship at all.

We also do not believe there is the necessary hindrance to the indigents asserting their own equal protection and due process rights to challenge the procedure.

The indigents have open avenues in State and Federal Court to assert their rights against the Michigan procedure.

And in fact some indigents without the aid of an attorney have advanced their claims to the Michigan Appellant Courts and to this Court.

This disproves the attorney’s theory that without the assistance of an attorney the indigents are unable to assert their own rights.

On a more fundamental level, if the indigents were hindered by the lack of an attorney, that hindrance could have been solved by the attorneys before us here attending State Court and assisting them without charge.

Finally, the indigents themselves appropriately were dismissed as I said earlier under the Younger doctrine.

Preventing Federal Court interference with on going state criminal proceedings, and unwillingness to allow our Younger principle to be the circumvented is in additional reason to deny the attorneys third party standing.

Accordingly, the judgment of the Court of Appeals is reversed.

Justice Thomas has filed a concurring opinion; Justice Ginsburg has filed a dissenting opinion in which Justices Stevens and Souter have joined.