Criminal defendants appearing at their first bail hearings in Maryland have the right to legal counsel, according to a unanimous decision Jan. 4 from the state's Court of Appeals.
The court, Maryland's highest, ruled in favor of a class action suit filed by Quinton Richmond and nine other plaintiffs who had been arrested for a variety of misdemeanor and felony offenses. They were represented by pro bono attorneys Michael Schatzow, JD, LLM, and Mitchell Mirviss, JD, of the Venable law firm, and by University of Maryland Francis King Carey School of Law professor Douglas Colbert, JD, and the students in his Access to Justice clinic.
The decision is a victory for low-income people in the state since it provides access to an attorney for "all indigent persons arrested, detained at Central Booking, [and] brought before a Commissioner for initial bail hearings" in Baltimore City and at initial appearances throughout Maryland, the court noted. The court ruled 5-2 in favor of putting the new rules into place immediately, despite concerns by the state's public defenders that they lack resources to do so.
Colbert called it "the most important right-to-counsel decision since Gideon in 1963." In Gideon v. Wainwright, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that a "poor man" charged with a felony cannot be forced to face his accuser at trial without assistance of a lawyer. In Richmond, the Court of Appeals extended the right to counsel for Maryland defendants to initial appearances and bail review hearings, where many defendants remain without representation. Colbert also said the case will likely have national implications, as it drew the involvement of the American Bar Association and many of the country's oldest and biggest civil rights groups.
Colbert and dozens of his students have worked on guaranteeing legal representation at the bail stage since 1997. The Richmond case took five years to wind its way through the courts.
"This decision is a tremendous victory for low-income people who may otherwise spend time in jail simply because they canýt afford counsel," said Dean Phoebe A. Haddon, JD, LLM. "It is part of the law schoolýs long tradition of expanding access to justice for all, particularly the poor."
"It takes tremendous dedication, focus, long hours and even tunnel vision to accomplish a victory like this," observed UM Carey Law professor Sherrilyn Ifill, JD. "But the payoff is a more just system and greater fairness for literally thousands of arrestees each year."
Colbert praised Schatzow and Mirviss, who handled the case without charge, and applauded the collaborative model with the private bar. He also thanked the 101 faculty members from the University of Maryland and University of Baltimore law schools who signed an amicus brief supporting his arguments, and the many students of his who contributed to the effort.
Currently, people arrested in Maryland for criminal offenses go before a commissioner, a judicial officer who decides whether they can be released on their own recognizance, on bail, or not at all. The commissioner has no access to legal counsel who would provide information about the accused when making his or her decision. Arrested persons appear alone, often in jail hearings closed to the public, and are not told that when responding to a commissioner their answers may be used against them later in a trial.
If the commissioner sets bail that can't be met, the unrepresented "defendant stands a good chance of losing his or her liberty, if only for a brief time," Judge Mary Ellen Barbera wrote in the court's majority opinion.