March 09, 2009

Supreme Court Decides Vermont v. Brillon

On March 9, 2009, the Supreme Court decided Vermont v. Brillon, No. 08-88.

Michael Brillon was arrested in July 2001 on felony domestic assault and habitual offender charges but was not tried until June 2004. During the three years between his arrest and trial, he was represented by six different counsel assigned under Vermont's public defender system. The question presented to the Court was whether delay caused solely by a public defender can be charged against the state for purposes of determining whether a criminal defendant has been deprived of a speedy trial. The Court held that it cannot, because state-appointed counsel are not "state actors" for purposes of a speedy-trial claim. A defendant's counsel is his agent, and delays caused by counsel therefore are attributed to the defense rather than the prosecution. The same principle applies whether counsel is privately retained or publicly assigned. A state may, however, be charged with delays caused by not appointing counsel promptly or by "a breakdown in the public defender system."

Justice Ginsburg delivered the opinion of the Court, in which Chief Justice Roberts and Justices Scalia, Kennedy, Souter, Thomas and Alito joined. Justice Breyer filed a dissenting opinion, in which Justice Stevens joined.

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