Kowalski v. Tesmer

Decision Date13 December 2004
Docket NumberNo. 03-407.,03-407.
Citation543 U.S. 125
PartiesKOWALSKI, JUDGE, 26TH JUDICIAL CIRCUIT COURT OF MICHIGAN, ET AL. v. TESMER ET AL.
CourtU.S. Supreme Court

After Michigan's Constitution was amended to require that an appeal by an accused pleading guilty or nolo contendere be by leave of the court, several state judges denied appointed appellate counsel to indigents pleading guilty, and the Michigan Legislature subsequently codified this practice. The two attorney respondents joined three indigent criminal defendants in filing suit in Federal District Court, alleging that the practice denies indigents their federal due process and equal protection rights. The District Court held the practice and statute unconstitutional, but a Sixth Circuit panel reversed, holding that Younger v. Harris, 401 U. S. 37, abstention barred the indigents' suit, but that the attorneys had third-party standing to assert the indigents' rights; and that the statute was constitutional. On rehearing, the en banc Sixth Circuit agreed on standing but found the statute unconstitutional.

Held: The attorneys lack third-party standing to assert the rights of Michigan indigent defendants denied appellate counsel. The Court assumes that the attorneys have satisfied Article III's standing requirement and thus addresses only whether they have standing to raise the rights of others. In deciding whether to grant third-party standing, this Court asks whether the party asserting the right has a "close" relationship with the person who possesses the right, and whether there is a "hindrance" to the possessor's ability to protect his own interests. Powers v. Ohio, 499 U. S. 400, 411. The attorneys here claim standing based on a future attorney-client relationship with as yet unascertained Michigan criminal defendants who will request, but be denied, appellate counsel under the statute. In two cases in which this Court found an attorney-client relationship sufficient to confer third-party standing — Caplin & Drysdale, Chartered v. United States, 491 U. S. 617, and Department of Labor v. Triplett, 494 U. S. 715 — the attorneys invoked known clients' rights, not those of the hypothetical clients asserted here. And Department of Labor v. Triplett — in which an attorney disciplined by his state bar for accepting a fee prohibited by the Black Lung Benefits Act of 1972 was held to have third-party standing to invoke claimants' due process rights to challenge the fee restriction that resulted in his punishment — falls within the class of cases allowing "standing to litigate the rights of third parties when enforc[ing] the challenged restriction against the litigant would result indirectly in the violation of third parties' rights," Warth v. Seldin, 422 U. S. 490, 510. The attorneys here do not have a "close relationship" with their alleged "clients"; indeed, they have no relationship at all. Nor have they demonstrated any "hindrance" to the indigents' advancing their own constitutional rights against the Michigan scheme. An indigent may seek leave to challenge the denial of appellate counsel in state court and then may seek a writ of certiorari in this Court; and both state and federal collateral review exist beyond that. The attorneys' hypothesis that, without counsel, such avenues are effectively foreclosed was disproved in the Michigan courts and this Court, where pro se indigents have pursued them. On a more fundamental level, if an attorney is all that the indigents need to perfect their challenge in state court and beyond, one wonders why these attorneys did not attend state court and assist them. The fair inference is that they did not want the state process to take its course, but wanted a federal court to short circuit the State's adjudication of the constitutional question. Here, the indigents were appropriately dismissed under Younger because they had ample opportunities to raise their constitutional challenge in their ongoing state proceedings. An unwillingness to allow the Younger principle to be thus circumvented is an additional reason to deny the attorneys third-party standing. Pp. 128-134.

333 F. 3d 683, reversed and remanded.

REHNQUIST, C. J., delivered the opinion of the Court, in which O'CONNOR, SCALIA, KENNEDY, THOMAS, and BREYER, JJ., joined. THOMAS, J., filed a concurring opinion, post, p. 134. GINSBURG, J., filed a dissenting opinion, in which STEVENS and SOUTER, JJ., joined, post, p. 136.

CERTIORARI TO THE UNITED STATES COURT OF APPEALS FOR THE SIXTH CIRCUIT.

Thomas L. Casey, Solicitor General of Michigan, argued the cause for petitioners. With him on the briefs was Michael A. Cox, Attorney General. Judy E. Bregman filed briefs for respondent Kolenda in support of petitioners under this Court's Rule 12.6.

David A. Moran argued the cause for respondents Tesmer et al. With him on the briefs were Michael J. Steinberg, Kary L. Moss, Mark Granzotto, and Steven R. Shapiro.*

CHIEF JUSTICE REHNQUIST delivered the opinion of the Court.

This case involves a constitutional challenge to Michigan's procedure for appointing appellate counsel for indigent defendants who plead guilty. The only challengers before us are two attorneys who seek to invoke the rights of hypothetical indigents to challenge the procedure. We hold that the attorneys lack standing and therefore do not reach the question of the procedure's constitutionality.

In 1994, Michigan amended its Constitution to provide that "an appeal by an accused who pleads guilty or nolo contendere shall be by leave of the court" and not as of right. Mich. Const., Art. I, § 20. Following this amendment, several Michigan state judges began to deny appointed appellate counsel to indigents who pleaded guilty, and the Michigan Legislature subsequently codified this practice.1 See Mich. Comp. Laws Ann. § 770.3a (West 2000). Under the statute which was scheduled to go into effect on April 1, 2000, appointment of appellate counsel for indigents who plead guilty is prohibited, with certain mandatory and permissive exceptions. Ibid.

A challenge to the Michigan practice was filed in the United States District Court for the Eastern District of Michigan. The named plaintiffs included the two attorney respondents and three indigents who were denied appellate counsel after pleading guilty. Pursuant to Rev. Stat. § 1979, 42 U. S. C. § 1983, they alleged that the Michigan practice and statute denied indigents their federal constitutional rights to due process and equal protection. They sought declaratory and injunctive relief against the practice and the statute.

A day before the statute was to take effect, the District Court issued an order holding the practice and statute unconstitutional. Tesmer v. Granholm, 114 F. Supp. 2d 603 (2000). It ultimately issued an injunction that bound all Michigan state judges, requiring them not to deny appellate counsel to any indigent who pleaded guilty. 114 F. Supp. 2d 622 (2000). A panel of the Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit reversed. Tesmer v. Granholm, 295 F. 3d 536 (2002). The panel held that Younger v. Harris, 401 U. S. 37 (1971), abstention barred the suit by the indigents but that the attorneys had third-party standing to assert the rights of indigents. It then held that the statute was constitutional. The Court of Appeals granted rehearing en banc and reversed. Tesmer v. Granholm, 333 F. 3d 683 (2003). The en banc majority agreed with the panel on standing but found that the statute was unconstitutional. Separate dissents were filed, challenging the application of third-party standing and the holding that the statute was unconstitutional. We granted certiorari. 540 U. S. 1148 (2004).

The doctrine of standing asks whether a litigant is entitled to have a federal court resolve his grievance. This inquiry involves "both constitutional limitations on federal-court jurisdiction and prudential limitations on its exercise." Warth v. Seldin, 422 U. S. 490, 498 (1975). In this case, we do not focus on the constitutional minimum of standing, which flows from Article III's case-or-controversy requirement. See Lujan v. Defenders of Wildlife, 504 U. S. 555, 560 (1992). Instead, we shall assume the attorneys have satisfied Article III and address the alternative threshold question whether they have standing to raise the rights of others. See Ruhrgas AG v. Marathon Oil Co., 526 U. S. 574, 585 (1999).2

We have adhered to 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." Warth v. Seldin, supra, at 499. This rule assumes that the party with the right has the appropriate incentive to challenge (or not challenge) governmental action and to do so with the necessary zeal and appropriate presentation. See 422 U. S., at 500. It represents a "healthy concern that if the claim is brought by someone other than one at whom the constitutional protection is aimed," Secretary of State of Md. v. Joseph H. Munson Co., 467 U. S. 947, 955, n. 5 (1984), the courts might be "called upon to decide abstract questions of wide public significance even though other governmental institutions may be more competent to address the questions and even though judicial intervention may be unnecessary to protect individual rights," Warth v. Seldin, supra, at 500.

We have not treated this rule as absolute, however, recognizing that there may be circumstances where it is necessary to grant a third party standing to assert the rights of another. But we have limited this exception by requiring that a party seeking third-party standing make two additional showings. First, we have asked whether the party asserting the right has a "close" relationship with the person who possesses the right. Powers v. Ohio, 499 U. S. 400, 411 (1991). Second, we have considered whether there is a "hindrance" to the possessor's ability to protect his own interests. Ib...

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