The arguments stemmed from the case of Jeffrey Morris who pleaded guilty to stealing CD players worth $180, a misdemeanor under Minnesota law.
At that time, he waived his right to an attorney and pleaded guilty before a Hennepin County judge. Afterwards, he tried to withdraw his guilty plea. He said he wasn't competent to waive the right to an attorney and plead guilty, because he suffered from bipolar disorder. He then asked for a public defender to represent him in his appeal, but the public defender's office declined.
The public defender's office said that since Morris' crime was a misdemeanor, it didn't have to represent him in an appeal. The judge handling the case agreed with the public defenders office. Then Morris appealed that ruling.
The question before the Minnesota Supreme Court is whether the state's constitution requires public defenders to represent the poor who want to appeal their misdemeanor convictions.
Morris' attorney Brad Delapena told justices that the state includes misdemeanors in its definition of crimes, and the Minnesota Constitution guarantees the right to counsel in all criminal prosecutions. He argued it's only fair that if there's a mistake in a misdemeanor conviction, the right to a public defender still applies when a defendant is trying to correct that mistake.
"This is the highest court of an independent sovereign. This court is ultimately responsible for the correct function of the criminal justice system in the state of Minnesota," said Delapena.
Representing the state Assistant Attorney General John Garry disagreed. He said the court must distinguish between different crimes and the right to an attorney, particularly in the area of appeals. He says when it comes to misdemeanors, public defenders are there to defend against state prosecution, but the right to an attorney ends when a misdemeanor prosecution is complete.
"One of those distinctions is the consequences for misdemeanors are less severe than they are for felonies, and in the appellate context, appointed counsel is operating as a sword rather than a shield," said Garry.
At one point during the arguments, Justice Alan Page raised the issue that the public defenders would have to represent more clients was the "elephant in the room." The budget of the state public defenders has taken a hit in previous legislative sessions. During the past session, the Legislature cut spending on public defenders by $1.5 million on top of a $4 million deficit. In June, the office cut staff in order to absorb those cuts.