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Judges can no longer pick defense attorneys

News Photo by Julie Riddle Court-appointed attorney Ron Bayot represents a client in court on Monday. Courts will no longer decide which attorneys will help those who can’t afford legal help.

ALPENA — Judges no longer get to decide who represents poor defendants, according to a recent decision by the Michigan Department of Licensing and Regulatory Affairs.

Intended to reduce a judge’s influence over a court case, the measure keeps judges from rewarding or punishing court-appointed attorneys by assigning or withholding such cases.

The change in Alpena courts won’t be drastic, according to Bill Pfeifer, an Alpena attorney who coordinates indigent defense for Alpena, Montmorency, and Alcona counties.

Though courts will still determine who is eligible to receive free legal defense based on their income, Pfeifer will now decide which area attorney will handle the cases of those who can’t afford to hire a lawyer.

Judges are still permitted to make suggestions about who might best represent a defendant in a criminal case, but the final decision will be made outside the courtroom.

In Alpena courtrooms, it’s not uncommon for a defendant to balk at going forward with their case, demanding a new attorney. That decision will no longer be up to the judge, and Pfeifer suspects dissatisfied defendants could become more confrontational once he’s the one telling them yes or no.

“People may want to listen to the judge more than they want to listen to Bill,” Pfeifer said.

People accused of serious crimes must be defended by someone with experience in that kind of case, state regulations require. In Northeast Michigan, finding an attorney for those cases can be challenging, Pfeifer said.

Locally, few attorneys in the public defense rotation have the required experience for such cases, and all attorneys are helping clients in multiple counties, juggling schedules of multiple courtrooms, making it difficult to find someone with both the experience and the time to provide proper defense.

Currently, attorneys are appointed on a case-by-case basis. Officials are working to establish a public defender office for Alpena and Montmorency counties, set up with employed defense attorneys, similar to the staffed county prosecutors’ offices.

Set to be finalized by spring, that project should help ensure attorneys are available and qualified to take on cases for those who can’t afford their help, Pfeifer said.

The change separating judges from attorney assignments is one of a set of standards proposed by the Michigan Indigent Defense Commission since 2017 to strengthen legal defense for poor people.

Previously adopted standards addressed training and education of attorneys, use of investigation and experts, and attorney presence immediately after arrest and the first time a defendant appears before a judge.

Julie Riddle can be reached at 989-358-5693, jriddle@thealpenanews.com or on Twitter @jriddleX.

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