Jessica Zimbelman Hired as the First MAACS Litigation Support Counsel

The Michigan Appellate Assigned Counsel System (MAACS), a division of the State Appellate Defender Office (SADO) that oversees a roster of about 150 private attorneys handling 2300 court-appointed felony appeals per year, has hired Jessica Zimbelman as the first Litigation Support Counsel, an innovative new position that will focus on training and supporting MAACS roster attorneys and managing state-funded investigative and expert services for MAACS cases.

Jessica has spent her career fighting for the rights of indigent criminal defendants. After graduating with honors from Hope College and Michigan State University College of Law, she spent three years at the Office of the Legislative Corrections Ombudsman, investigating and working to resolve issues surrounding confinement conditions and prisoner treatment throughout Michigan. Jessica then joined SADO as an Assistant Defender, where she has handled some of the most complex and challenging types of cases in state and federal courts, including trial court evidentiary hearings, resentencing proceedings in cases involving life-without-parole for juveniles, and second-chair responsibilities in the United States Supreme Court case of Burt v Titlow, decided in 2013.

Jessica is a passionate and gifted teacher as well. She frequently speaks to attorneys and judges on sentencing, corrections, and appellate writing, and for eight years she taught appellate advocacy as an Adjunct Professor at Michigan State University College of Law. And she is a recognized expert on prisons and prisoner issues, having authored the Defender Guide for Attorneys: Policies and Procedures of the Michigan Department of Corrections, a publication of SADO’s Criminal Defense Resource Center.

Jessica’s addition to the MAACS staff represents a significant step in its evolution from a pure administrative agency to a collaborative assigned counsel partnership with the State Appellate Defender Office (SADO). From 1985 until 2014, MAACS operated as a standalone office with the primary responsibilities of maintaining an appellate counsel roster, processing appointment orders, and investigating violations of the minimum standards of appellate representation. But beyond hosting annual training events, MAACS lacked the capacity to assist in individual cases or provide meaningful supervision and development.

Much of that changed when MAACS merged with SADO in 2014, resulting in a significant expansion of the resources, training, and expertise provided to MAACS roster attorneys. These enhancements have allowed a level of support and oversight that is more akin to a traditional public defender office, where staff attorneys can rely on the advice and collective expertise of colleagues and supervisors.

Among the most significant aspects has been the grant-funded Appellate Investigation Project (AIP), under which experienced SADO staff attorneys have teamed up with professional investigators to provide the MAACS roster with a broad range of litigation support, including staff investigation services, briefing assistance, second-chair support at hearings, moot oral arguments, and strategic consultation. MAACS has also heightened the scope of its review procedures and roster attorney development, with regular formal and informal reviews of roster attorney work product and a slate of diverse training opportunities.

With the conclusion of federal Byrne-JAG funding for the AIP in 2018 and the growing need for roster support, oversight, and training, it was critical for MAACS to fill this permanent new position with somebody who can take ownership of these priorities and focus her considerable talent and energy on providing the roster with the tools they need to provide better appellate representation to their clients. Since emerging from a tremendously qualified field of applicants who care deeply about indigent defense reform, Jessica has already breathed new life and energy into MAACS.

Among her responsibilities, Jessica will manage the AIP and oversee the professional development of new roster attorneys and pro bono counsel. She can be reached at zimbelmanj@mimaacs.org or 517.492.5844.