A Baltimore City Circuit Court judge broke new ground when he ruled that indigent defendants have a right to be represented by a lawyer when they first appear at a bail hearing. The decision reversed generations of procedure in Baltimore and in the rest of Maryland, where initial hearings are held without counsel for the accused. The State must now decide whether it will appeal the ruling to Maryland's highest court.
Professor Douglas L. Colbert, who has pursued this issue with his clinic students for the past 14 years, called Judge Alfred Nance’s decision "the most important right-to-counsel ruling in Maryland since the Supreme Court declared the Gideon right nearly 50 years ago." The Gideon v Wainright case determined that indigent defendants had a right to counsel - even at public expense - when they went to court.
Colbert's students sparked the legal challenge four years ago by persuading the Venable law firm to accept the case for free. Venable lawyers Michael Schatzow and Mitchell Mirviss and devoted hundreds of hours of their time since they filed suit in 2006 and represent, in Colbert's words, "the highest ideal of the profession's pro bono commitment to represent people unable to afford private counsel." The pair shared with the Maryland law students "an educational experience that could never be repeated in the typical classroom," said Colbert.
Under existing practices, city defendants who cannot afford to hire their own attorneys represent themselves at an initial bail hearing conducted inside the city jail. Colbert, who has spent decades working for the rights of indigent defendants, says people charged with non-violent crimes typically spend more time in jail waiting for a trial than is necessary, at taxpayer expense. This often comes at the cost of school, jobs, and family considerations. Since 1998 his law students have represented hundreds of people and showed that with access to an attorney, judges receive reliable information that provides lawyers with a better chance to build a stronger case for release on low- or no-cash bail while their case winds through the system.
Mirviss and Schatzow, working with the Maryland law students, brought the Quinton Richmond vs. District Court of Maryland case, which argued that indigent defendants have a right to counsel at the initial bail hearing. Nance ruled against Richmond's claim then, but Schatzow and Mirviss appealed, and submitted a brief to Maryland's Court of Appeals. Schatzow's argument in January of 2009 led the state's highest court to send the case back to Nance, who last week issued his new ruling. He also stayed his decision in anticipation of an appeal by the state back to the Court of Appeals.
"There's another half to be played," said Colbert, tempering his delight at the decision.
UMB News Bureau