Criminal defendants appearing at their first bail hearings have the right to legal counsel, according to a unanimous January 4 decision from the Maryland Court of Appeals. The state’s highest court 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 and Mitchell Merviss of the Venable law firm, and by UM Carey Law Professor Douglas Colbert and the students in his Access to Justice clinic, one of more than two dozen offered as part of the school’s nationally-ranked program in clinical law.
Colbert called the court’s ruling “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 the assistance of a lawyer. In Richmond the court extended the right counsel to initial appearances throughout the state of Maryland.”
The Richmond decision may also have national implications, Colbert said, because it attracted the involvement of the American Bar Association and some of the country’s oldest and largest civil rights groups.
“This decision is a tremendous victory for low-income people who may otherwise spend time in jail simply because they can’t afford counsel,” noted Phoebe Haddon, UM Carey Law Dean and Professor of Law. “It is part of the law school’s long tradition of expanding access to justice for all, particularly the poor.”
The decision provides access to an attorney for “all indigent persons arrested, detained at Central Booking, [and] brought before a Commissioner for initial bail hearings,” the court said, in Baltimore City and at defendants’ “initial appearances throughout the state of Maryland.”
Currently, people arrested in Maryland for serious offenses go before a Commissioner, a judicial officer who decides whether or not they can be released on their own recognizance, on bail, or not at all. Arrested persons appear alone—in Baltimore City at a jail hearing closed to the public. They 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 which can’t be met, “the 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.
Professor Colbert and dozens of his students have worked on guaranteeing legal representation at the bail stage since 1997. They devoted the past five years to this law suit as it wound its way through the courts. “It takes tremendous dedication, focus, long-hours and even tunnel-vision to accomplish a victory like this,“ observed UM Carey Law Professor Sherrilyn Ifill. “But the pay-off is a more just system and greater fairness for literally thousands of arrestees each year. What a great model for our students! I'm proud of Doug and all the many students who have helped him over the years.”
Colbert praised attorneys Schatzow and Merviss, who handled the case without charge, and the collaboration model of working with the private bar. He expressed his gratitude to the 101 faculty members from the University of Maryland and the University of Baltimore law schools who signed an amicus brief supporting his arguments and gave a special thanks to his students.