UPDATED: Muskegon County Begins Hiring For New Public Defender Office

Editor’s correction: The original version of this story indicated that the series of three-month public defender contracts approved at Tuesday’s board of commissioners meeting were for Muskegon County’s new Public Defender Department. In reality, these are extensions of the existing contractor system agreements that Muskegon County currently uses for indigent defense.  The new Director of the new public defender department will assemble the new department and will be looking to hire attorneys under the new system in the coming months, with a start date of January 1. The below story has been corrected to indicate this reality.

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Andrew Trzaska | August 28, 2013

Muskegon County will proceed with bringing its public defense system in-house after hiring a director for its new public defender office.

50 years ago, the U.S. Supreme Court decision in Gideon v. Wainright said an attorney must be provided by the state to those who want but cannot afford a lawyer.  Up until now, Muskegon’s system contracted with up to 18 individual lawyers to devote part of their practice to defending those who needed representation. The new system will bring these contracts in-house starting January 1.

Muskegon’s examination of its public defender system comes after a lawsuit and a new law at the state level that pushed Michigan counties to reassess their systems.

Back in early 2007, the American Civil Liberties Union in Michigan filed a class action lawsuit against Muskegon, Genessee and Berrien Counties. The case, Duncan v. Michigan, contended the county’s systems for public defense were not giving adequate defense to the people they were supposed to help.

The ACLU lawsuit only moved ahead this year after half a decade of bickering, but they recently dropped their lawsuit when Michigan’s legislature passed Public Act 93, creating the Michigan Indigent Defense Commission as well as the conditions leading Muskegon to rework their public defender system.

The current system will operate up through December 31, with commissioners extending existing attorney contracts on Tuesday for another three months from October 1, 2013 through the end of the year. Johnson will work to get the new department organized starting in September, and will hire approximately one dozen attorneys plus three support staff.

The county’s vote on Johnson’s contract passed unanimously, though vigorous debate took place up until the vote.

Supporters of the new plan say the current system is under-funded and does not provide defendants stable representation. Opponents of the new plan point out it will cost the county more money but will have fewer lawyers. The Muskegon County Bar Association has even come out in formal opposition of the plan.

Local attorney and recent Muskegon City Commission candidate Joshua EldenBrady described the county Bar Association’s stance as “embarrassing”, questioning what people would say if someone proposed privatizing the office of the County Prosecutor.

“If it’s not good enough for the prosecutor’s office, it’s not good enough for our indigent defense system,” said EldenBrady.

Commissioner Charles Nash spoke out after the vote, expressing his support.

“I think it’s a huge milestone for Muskegon County as a whole, and a major change for this community,” said commissioner Charles Nash. “I’m excited to see the direction we’re taking.”

Enclosed with Tuesday’s agenda were congratulatory letters from the Michigan Campaign for Justice, the Michigan branch of the ACLU, and Richard D. McLellan, an attorney who helped the state craft its current standards for indigent defense attorneys, also commonly known as public defenders.

Andrew Trzaska

103.7 “The Beat” – local government beat reporter and political analyst