James v. Strange 8212 11

Decision Date12 June 1972
Docket NumberNo. 71,71
Citation407 U.S. 128,92 S.Ct. 2027,32 L.Ed.2d 600
PartiesJames R. JAMES, Judicial Administrator, et al., Appellants, v. David E. STRANGE. —11
CourtU.S. Supreme Court
Syllabus

Kansas recoupment statute enabling State to recover in subsequent civil proceedings legal defense fees for indigent defendants, invalidated by District Court as an infringement on the right to counsel, held to violate the Equal Protection Clause in that, by virtue of the statute, indigent defendants are deprived of the array of protective exemptions Kansas has erected for other civil judgment debtors. Pp. 129—142.

323 F.Supp. 1230, affirmed.

Edward G. Collister, Jr., Lawrence, Kan., for appellants.

John E. Wilkinson, Topeka, Kan., for appellee.

Mr. Justice POWELL delivered the opinion of the Court.

This case presents a constitutional challenge to a Kansas recoupment statute, whereby the State may recover in subsequent civil proceedings counsel and other legal defense fees expended for the benefit of indigent defendants. The three-judge court below held the statute unconstitutional, finding it to be an impermissible burden upon the right to counsel established in Gideon v. Wainwright, 372 U.S. 335, 83 S.Ct. 792, 9 L.Ed.2d 799 (1963).1 The State appealed and we noted jurisdiction, 404 U.S. 982, 92 S.Ct. 444, 30 L.Ed.2d 365.

The relevant facts are not disputed. Appellee Strange was arrested and charged with first-degree robbery under Kansas law. He appeared before a magistrate, professed indigency, and accepted appointed counsel under the Kansas Aid to Indigent Defendants Act.2 Appellee was then tried in the Shawnee County District Court on the reduced charge of pocket picking. He pleaded guilty and received a suspended sentence and three years' probation.

Thereafter, appellee's counsel applied to the State for payment for his services and received $500 from the Aid to Indigent Defendants Fund. Pursuant to Kansas' recoupment statute, the Kansas Judicial Administrator requested appellee to reimburse the State within 60 days or a judgment for the $500 would be docketed against him. Appellee contends this procedure violates his constitutional rights.

I

It is necessary at the outset to explain the terms and operation of the challenged statute.3 When the State provides an indigent defendant with counsel or other legal services, the defendant becomes obligated to the State for the amount expended in his behalf. Within 30 days of the expenditure, the defendant is notified of his debt and given 60 days to repay it.4 If the sum remains unpaid after the 60-day period, a judgment is docketed against defendant for the unpaid amount. Six percent annual interest runs on the debt from the date the expenditure was made. The debt becomes a lien on the real estate of defendant and may be executed by garnishment or in any other manner provided by the Kansas Code of Civil Procedure. The indigent defendant is not, however, accorded any of the exemptions provided by that code for other judgment debtors except the homestead exemption. If the judgment is not executed within five years, it becomes dormant and ceases to operate as a lien on the debtor's real estate, but may be revived in the same manner as other dormant judgments under the code of civil procedure.5

Several features of this procedure merit mention. The entire program is administered by the judicial administrator, a public official, but appointed counsel are private practitioners. The statute apparently leaves to administrative discretion whether, and under what circumstances, enforcement of the judgment will be sought. Recovered sums do, however, revert to the Aid to Indigent Defendants Fund.

The Kansas statute is but one of many state recoupment laws applicable to counsel fees and expenditures paid for indigent defendants.6 The statutes vary widely in their terms. Under some statutes, the indigent's liability is to the county in which he is tried; in others to the State. Alabama and Indiana make assessment and recovery of an indigent's counsel fees discretionary with the court. Florida's recoupment law has no statute of limitations and the State is deemed to have a perpetual lien against the defendant's real and personal property and estate.7 Idaho, on the other hand, has a five-year statute of limitations on the re- covery of an 'indigent's' concealed assets at the time of trial and a three-year statute for the recovery of later acquired ones. In Virginia and West Virginia, the amount paid to court-appointed counsel is assessed only against convicted defendants as a part of costs, although the majority of state recoupment laws apply whether or not the defendant prevails. It is thus apparent that state recoupment laws and procedures differ significantly in their particulars.8 Given the wide differences in the features of these statutes, any broadside pronouncement on their general validity would be inappropriate.

We turn therefore to the Kansas statute, aware that our reviewing function is a limited one. We do not inquire whether this statute is wise or desirable, or 'whether it is based on assumptions scientifically substantiated.' Roth v. United States, 354 U.S. 476, 501, 77 S.Ct. 1304, 1317, 1 L.Ed.2d 1498 (1957) (Separate opinion of Harlan, J.). Misguided laws may nonetheless be constitutional. It has been noted both in the briefs and at argument that only $17,000 has been recovered under the statute in its almost two years of operation, and that this amount is negligible compared to the total expended. 9 Our task, however, is not to weigh this statute's effectiveness but its constitutionality. Whether the returns under the statute justify the expense, time, and efforts of state officials is for the ongoing supervision of the legislative branch.

The court below invalidated this statute on the grounds that it 'needlessly encourages indigents to do without counsel and consequently infringes on the right to counsel as explicated in Gideon v. Wainwright, supra.' 323 F.Supp. 1230, 1233. In Gideon, counsel had been denied an indigent defendant charged with a felony because his was not a capital case. This Court often has voided state statutes and practices which denied to accused indigents the means to present effective defenses in courts of law. Douglas v. California, 372 U.S. 353, 83 S.Ct. 814, 9 L.Ed.2d 811 (1963); Draper v. Washington, 372 U.S. 487, 83 S.Ct. 774, 9 L.Ed.2d 899 (1963); Lane v. Brown, 372 U.S. 477, 83 S.Ct. 768, 9 L.Ed.2d 892 (1963); Griffin v. Illinois, 351 U.S. 12, 76 S.Ct. 585, 100 L.Ed. 891 (1956). Here, however, Kansas has enacted laws both to provide and compensate from public funds counsel for the indigent.10 There is certainly no denial of the right to counsel in the strictest sense. Whether the statutory obligations for repayment impermissibly deter the exercise of this right is a question we need not reach, for we find the statute before us constitutionally infirm on other grounds.

II

Appellants have asserted in argument before this Court that the statute 'has attempted to treat them (indigent defendants) the same as would any civil judgment debtor be treated in the State courts . . .'11 Again, in their brief appellants assert that '(f)or all practical purposes the methods available for enforcement of the judgment are the same as those provided by the Code of Civil Procedures (sic) or any other civil judgment.'12 The challenged portion of the statute thrice alludes to means of debt recovery prescribed by the Kansas Code of Civil Procedure.13

Yet the ostensibly equal treatment of indigent defendants with other civil judgment debtors recedes sharply as one examines the statute more closely. The statute stipulates that save for the homestead, '(n)one of the exemptions provided for in the code of civil procedure shall apply to any such judgment . . ..'14 This provision strips from indigent defendants the array of protective exemptions Kansas has erected for other civil judgment debtors, including restrictions on the amount of disposable earnings subject to garnishment, protection of the debtor from wage garnishment at times of severe personal or family sickeness, and exemption from attachment and execution on a debtor's personal clothing, books, and tools of trade. For the head of a family, the exemptions afforded other judgment debtors become more extensive, and cover furnishings, food, fuel, clothing, means of transportation, pension funds, and even a family burial plot or crypt.15

Of the above exemptions, none is more important to a debtor than the exemption of his wages from unrestricted garnishment. The debtor's wages are his sustenance, with which he supports himself and his family. The average low income wage earner spends nearly nine-tenths of those wages for items of immediate consumption.16 This Court has recognized the potential of certain garnishment proceedings to 'impose tremendous hardship on wage earners with families to support.' Sniadach v. Family Finance Corp., 395 U.S. 337, 340, 89 S.Ct. 1820, 1822, 23 L.Ed.2d 349 (1969).17 Kansas has likewise perceived the burden to a debtor and his family when wages may be subject to wholesale garnishment. Consequently, under its code of civil procedure, the maximum which can be garnished is the lesser of 25% of a debtor's weekly disposable earnings or the amount by which those earnings exceed 30 times the federal minimum hourly wage. No one creditor may issue more than one garnishment during any one month, and no employer may discharge an employee because his earnings have been garnished for a single indebtedness.18 For Kansas to deny protections such as these to the once criminally accused is to risk denying him the means needed to keep himself and his family afloat.

The indigent's predicament under this statute comes into sharper focus when compared with that of one who has hired counsel in his defense. Should the latter prove unable to pay and a judgment be obtained against him,...

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