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Md. Top Court Rules Poor Defendants Entitled to Lawyers at Bail Hearings; PD Says He Can’t Comply

Posted Jan 5, 2012 10:56 AM CDT
By Debra Cassens Weiss

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Updated: Ruling on statutory grounds, Maryland’s top court has held that indigent defendants have a right to state-provided legal representation at bail hearings.

The Maryland Court of Appeals ruled Wednesday that the Public Defender Act gives defendants the right to legal representation. The opinion (PDF) did not address constitutional arguments.

Maryland Public Defender Paul DeWolfe Jr. had favored the requirement, but asked the court to delay implementation until his office could find the resources to provide counsel, the Baltimore Sun reports.

"We believe that declaring the right without addressing the issue of remedies was an empty gesture," DeWolfe told the Sun. "We don't have the resources to comply with this order." He plans to appoint a study group to examine the resources that will be needed.

Some counties across the country protect the right to counsel at the bail stage, and some do not, though the trend is moving toward guaranteeing a lawyer, according to Douglas Colbert, a professor at the University of Maryland law school. Colbert worked on the case for the plaintiffs with students in his Access to Justice Clinic, according to a press release.

The American Bar Association had filed an amicus brief in the case that supported the appointment of counsel. The brief had cited the “consensus view of the legal profession” embodied in the ABA Standards for Criminal Justice.

Colbert says the involvement of the ABA and several civil rights groups indicates the case may have national implications. The opinion is "the most important right-to-counsel decision since Gideon in 1963,” Colbert says in the press release.

Updated at 1:20 p.m. to include information from the University of Maryland press release.

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