Today’s Billings Gazette features a front-page exposé of the problems in Stillwater County Justice Court. It seems the justice of the peace has regularly held one-on-one arraignments at the county jail for maybe 20 years. These are arraignments that are basically secret—she does not inform the prosecution or any potential defense counsel that she’s going to hold the arraignments. She holds them randomly; often on weekends and holidays.
What SCOTUS decision of the last term said the right to counsel begins at initial appearance? If I were a good blogger, I’d look it up and tell you, but it’s there. Nearly every court of limited jurisdiction in Region 9 of the Montana State Office of Public Defender regularly holds initial appearances in a similar way — randomly, without notifying prosecution or defense. Sure, the judges advise the accused of their rights, but that’s very different from making sure the accused has access to an attorney right then and there.
The Gazoo article also highlights the problematic practice of these courts initiating revocation procedings sua sponte and again w/o notifying defense or prosecution. The law in these areas seems clear that these practices are not legal, yet they go on day after day. Oh, and how does the public feel about it? The Gazoo readership sees no problem here. Welcome to Montana! Yeeehaw!