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Law School Case Brief

Kowalski v. Tesmer - 543 U.S. 125, 125 S. Ct. 564 (2004)


The United States Supreme Court has not treated the rule that a party generally must assert his own legal rights and interests and cannot rest his claim to relief on the legal rights or interests of third parties as absolute, recognizing that there may be circumstances where it is necessary to grant a third party standing to assert the rights of another. But the Supreme Court has limited this exception by requiring that a party seeking third-party standing make two additional showings. First, the Supreme Court has asked whether the party asserting the right has a "close" relationship with the person who possesses the right. Second, the Supreme Court has considered whether there is a "hindrance" to the possessor's ability to protect his own interests. The Supreme Court has been quite forgiving with these criteria in certain circumstances.


In 1994, Michigan amended its state constitution to provide that an appeal by an accused pleading guilty or nolo contendere was to be by leave of the court and not as of right. Following this amendment, some Michigan state judges began to deny appointed appellate counsel to indigents who pleaded guilty, and the Michigan state legislature subsequently codified this practice. In the United States District Court for the Eastern District of Michigan, two attorneys, together with three indigents who had been denied appellate counsel after pleading guilty, filed suit under 42 U.S.C.S. § 1983, which alleged that the Michigan practice and statute denied indigents their federal constitutional rights to due process and equal protection, and the challengers sought declaratory and injunctive relief. The District Court issued an order holding the practice and statute unconstitutional and ultimately issued an injunction requiring Michigan state judges not to deny appellate counsel to any indigent who pleaded guilty. A panel of the United States Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit reversed, concluding that the abstention doctrine of Younger v Harris (1971) 401 U.S. 37, barred the suit by the three indigent challengers, who had ongoing state criminal proceedings, and that the attorneys had third-party standing to assert the rights of indigents. The appellate court further held that the statute was constitutional. On rehearing in banc, the Court of Appeals agreed with the panel on standing, but found that the statute was unconstitutional.


Did the attorneys have third-party standing to invoke the rights of hypothetical indigent clients to challenge the Michigan system?




The Court held that the attorneys did not have third-party standing to invoke the rights of hypothetical indigent clients to challenge Michigan's system because the attorneys did not have a close relationship with any person who possessed the right to challenge the system, as the attorneys relied merely on a future attorney-client relationship with as-yet-unascertained criminal defendants who would request, but be denied, the appointment of appellate counsel on the basis of the system's operation. Moreover, the Court held that the attorneys had not demonstrated that there was a hindrance to the indigents’ ability to advance the indigents’ own constitutional rights. According to the Court, the assertion that adverse state-law precedent on the merits of the constitutional claim made any resort to the Michigan state courts futile did not justify the attorneys' third-party standing in federal court.

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