Vermont v. Brillon

RESPONDENT:Michael Brillon
LOCATION: The Vermont Supreme Court

DOCKET NO.: 08-88
DECIDED BY: Roberts Court (2006-2009)

CITATION: 556 US (2009)
GRANTED: Oct 01, 2008
ARGUED: Jan 13, 2009
DECIDED: Mar 09, 2009

Christina Rainville – argued the cause for the petitioner
Leondra R. Kruger – Assistant to the Solicitor General, Department of Justice, for the United States, as amicus curiae, supporting the petitioner
William A. Nelson – argued the cause for the respondent

Facts of the case

In June 2004 after 3 years awaiting trial, Michael Brillon was convicted in a Vermont court for felony domestic assault. On appeal, he argued that the district court erred in denying his motion to dismiss the charges against him for lack of a speedy trial. The Supreme Court of Vermont agreed and remanded with instructions for the trial court to set aside Mr. Brillon’s conviction and dismiss the charges against him.

The court held that Mr. Brillon was not prosecuted within a time frame that satisfied his constitutional right to a speedy trial. It reasoned that the state was not relieved of its duty to provide Mr. Brillon with a speedy trial merely because the public defenders assigned him were mostly responsible for the delay. Rather, it considered the office of the public defender an arm of the state.


1) Are delays that violate a defendant’s right to speedy trial, caused largely by the defendant’s assigned counsel, properly attributed to the state because it finances the office of the public defender?

2) Should a defendant represented by publicly financed counsel be considered more prejudiced against when counsel is responsible for delays that infringe defendant’s right to speedy trial than a defendant who retains private counsel?

Media for Vermont v. Brillon

Audio Transcription for Oral Argument – January 13, 2009 in Vermont v. Brillon

Audio Transcription for Opinion Announcement – March 09, 2009 in Vermont v. Brillon

Ruth Bader Ginsburg:

The second case I have to announce is 08-88, Vermont against Brillon.

This case concerns the Sixth Amendment’s guarantee that in all criminal prosecutions, the accused shall enjoy a right to a speedy trial.

Michael Brillon, defendant below, respondent here, was arrested in July 2001 on felony domestic assault and habitual offender charges.

Nearly three years later, in June 2004, he was tried by a jury, found guilty as charged, and sentenced to 12 to 20 years in prison.

The Vermont Supreme Court vacated Brillon’s conviction and held that the charges against him must be dismissed because he had been denied his right to a speedy trial.

During the time between Brillon’s arrest and his trial, at least six different attorneys were appointed to represent him.

Brillon fired the first, who served from July 2001 to February 2002.

His third lawyer, who served from March 2002 until June 2002, was allowed to withdraw when he reported that Brillon had threatened his life.

The Vermont Supreme Court charged against Brillon the delays associated with those periods, but charged against the State periods in which assigned counsel failed to move the case forward.

We hold that the Vermont Supreme Court erred in ranking assigned counsel essentially as state actors in the criminal justice system.

Assigned counsel, just as retained counsel, act on behalf of their clients, and delays sought by counsel are ordinarily attributable to the defendants they represent.

For a total of some six months of the time that elapsed between Brillon’s arrest and his trial, Brillon lacked an attorney.

The State may be charged with those months if the gaps resulted from the trial court’s failure to appoint replacement counsel with dispatch.

Similarly, the State may bear responsibility if there is a breakdown in the public defender system.

But, as the Vermont Supreme Court acknowledged, the record does not establish any such institutional breakdown.

For these reasons detailed further in our opinion, we hold that the record in this case does not show that Brillon was denied his constitutional right to a speedy trial.

Justice Breyer has filed a dissenting opinion in which Justice Stevens joins.