Magistrate Court Project

While the Jail Project was going strong and getting people out of jail who were supposed to be released, two things came to our attention with regard to the right to counsel. First, the United States Supreme Court had recently changed the law and expanded the right to free lawyers in criminal cases. Second, defendants we were seeing in the Jail Project were not getting free lawyers as they should. So we started a new project: the Magistrate Court Project.

After preparing a potential lawsuit to enforce the recent Supreme Court cases, Law in Action was able to convince the judges of the 13th circuit to sign a court order requiring the appointment of lawyers for indigents who had been arrested on 30 days charges. This order was signed on December 1, 2009 and changed the criminal justice system in Greenville County.

Fortunately the public defender office agreed to accept the influx of new summary court cases. Law in Action stepped in to help by conducting jail interviews and recruiting pro bono lawyers to handle some of the cases. This worked for a while until we ran out of lawyers.

Now, the public defender contracts out 350 of these summary court cases to private counsel.

Due to the efforts of Law in Action, the right to counsel is in place for indigent jailed defendants charged with minor crimes just as the United States Supreme Court ordered.

Now that a new system is in place to handle these cases we closed down the Magistrate Court Project.

to read the Standing Order.


Magistrate Court Project — Constitutional Right to Counsel

In addition the Jail Project’s work to guarantee timely release from jail for magistrate and city court detainees, we have been instrumental in enforcing the constitutional guarantee of the right to free counsel for indigent defendants.

In 2002 the United States Supreme Court expanded the right to counsel to include defendants whose sentences may “end up in the actual deprivation of a person’s liberty”. Law in Action interpreted this ruling to include all pretrial detainees since they would automatically receive jail credit for any sentence imposed. Then, in 2008 the Supreme Court ruled that the right to counsel attaches at a defendant’s arraignment. In the magistrate and city court systems the right to counsel applies when bond is set.

Taking these two important decisions together, Law in Action sought to convince the South Carolina Court Administration in Columbia that an order should be issued to protect all detained magistrate and city court defendants statewide and provide free lawyers for them. This request was rejected. However, LIA pursued this issue with the judges from the circuit court in the Upstate. With the leadership of Judge Miller and the support of the other judges of the 13th judicial circuit, the right to counsel for low income magistrate defendants held in jail has now been guaranteed by court order. That Standing Order was issued in December 2009.

As a result of the circuit court’s Standing Order, any jailed defendant who cannot afford counsel and wants an attorney will be assigned counsel. This was a very significant development, particularly since the right to counsel has not been guaranteed (yet) in other parts of the state.

In December 2010 Judge Stilwell extended the right to counsel to detained city court defendants. Now, any jailed defendant in Greenville who wants an attorney, including low income defendants who can’t afford counsel, can be screened for a free lawyer.

In large part due to Law in Action’s efforts, Greenville County is now in compliance with the decisions of the United States Supreme Court on the right to counsel for indigent detainees. Law in Action is proud of its role in making this happen. Also, LIA appreciates the clear and strong position taken by our circuit court judges as well as the willingness of the circuit public defender to accept these new clients.


Government Partnerships

Law in Action has been fortunate to have excellent partners in its efforts to ensure timely release on bond for lower court defendants and to protect the constitutional rights of low income defendants. The jail staff and administration have been a huge help as have been the bond court magistrates. The 13th Circuit Solicitor’s Office’s cooperation made timely release of detainees possible in many cases. The judges and public defender for the 13th judicial circuit provided the legal backing needed for the 6th Amendment’s right to counsel to bring to life for indigent detainees. Law in Action’s Jail Project is an example of how a non profit group, with solid government can make a difference. Law in Action also believes that any group should set a goal and when the goal has been reached, move on to other efforts. That is exactly what we have done with the Jail Project.