Monday, June 23, 2008

SCOTUS to Texas: Provide counsel earlier in process

Via SCOTUSBlog, the US Supreme Court today issued its ruling in Rothgery v. Gillespie County (see the opinion and the SCOTUSWiki on the case), in which the majority held that:
A criminal defendant’s initial appearance before a magistrate judge, where he learns the charge against him and his liberty is subject to restriction, marks the initiation of adversary judicial proceedings that trigger attachment of the Sixth Amendment right to counsel. Attachment does not also require that a prosecutor (as distinct from a police officer) be aware of that initial proceeding or involved in its conduct. Pp. 5–20.

(a) Texas’s article 15.17 hearing marks the point of attachment, with the consequent state obligation to appoint counsel within a reasonable time once a request for assistance is made.
What's the significance? In the past, a defendant was not entitled to counsel at their bail hearing unless they couldn't make bond or bail was denied. In that case they had counsel appointed fairly quickly. But in the case where a defendant makes bond but also requests a lawyer, Texas courts previously held the defendant could not get a court appointed lawyer until they were indicted, leaving indigent defendants for weeks in limbo with no legal adviser. Now SCOTUS has said courts must appoint counsel for indigent defendants at their bail hearing.

That's how most other states do it; Texas had just been skimping by not appointing counsel earlier. According to the opinion, "The Court is advised without contradiction that not only the Federal Government, including the District of Columbia, but 43 States take the first step toward appointing counsel before, at, or just after initial appearance. To the extent the remaining 7 States have been denying appointed counsel at that time, they are a distinct minority."

Pero no mas. Now Texas and those six other states must hire attorneys for indigent clients earlier in the process. As I pointed out earlier, it's not a very wise time for counties to be slashing indigent defense budgets. (UPDATE: The ruling was narrower than first portrayed. SCOTUS said what Gillespie County did was wrong, but expressly did not say what they should have done instead.)

Congrats to everybody over at the Texas Fair Defense Project who spearheaded the case. This was a big win on an important topic.

See prior related Grits posts:


Anonymous said...

Once again Texas is wrong!

I sure hope this reduces the plea deals made just to get out of jail. The long term consequences of these deals are far more harmful than young adults can possibly imagine.

Am I correct that misdemeanors are included?

Anonymous said...

anonymous 11:36,

I believe the requirement to appoint counsel for the indigent only kicks in when the punishment for the offense exceeds 180 days.

So some misdemeanors yes, others no.

TxBluesMan said...

About time.

It's a shame that SCOTUS didn't take up the question (and the point of view of most Texas counties) that if you can afford bail, you're not indigent, which is garbage.

Anonymous said...

This is terrible news for indigent defendants.

Suppose you got arrested Friday night for public intoxication... Saturday morning they say, "we can manistrate you and release you on bond today if you hire an attorney or waive cousel, if you need an appointed attorney you'll have to wait until Monday morning."

TxBluesMan said...

I don't believe that you can get counsel appointed on a misdemeanor punishable by fine only, like public intoxication.

Anonymous said...

Well I did get arrested for Public Intoxication and did stay in jail for about 10 hours then paid 500.00 dollars to get out. The arresting officer has still not turned in the ticket. The actual fine is 360. 00 I want the remainder of my money back. The lady I spoke to told me to sign the back of the ticket that states "not guilty" and send it in to get a court date. Do I want to plead "not gulity" do I want to get an attourney?