Spotlight on: Melissa Wangler

From the October-November 2023, Criminal Defense Newsletter
You are the Senior Regional Manager for Northern Michigan, working for the Michigan Indigent Defense Commission (MIDC). What does that work entail?

I’m in the middle of a transition from the Northern Michigan Regional Manager position to the Senior Regional Manager position, so I’m currently wearing two hats. As Regional Manager for Northern Michigan, I act as a liaison between the Michigan Indigent Defense Commission and local funding units. My primary role is to offer support to funding units as they develop plans and budgets for complying with the MIDC standards, and to assist them with a resolution process if any compliance issues arise. My goal is to help them succeed in compliance with all of the MIDC’s standards. I meet with stakeholders, observe court, provide MIDC updates to interested groups within the funding unit, and continuously assess compliance with the standards. 

As the Senior Regional Manager, I will no longer manage the Northern Michigan Region. Instead, I will support the Regional Manager team, assist in the creation of compliance related documents and planning resources, assist with compliance plan reviews, and oversee the compliance assessment process. 

What type of legal work did you do before you joined the MIDC?

I worked as a solo practitioner in Ogemaw County for five years before I joined the MIDC. My practice was primarily focused on criminal defense and family court matters. Prior to that I was a high school guidance counselor for eleven years and an at-risk counselor in a middle school for five years. The transition from counselor to attorney was interesting in my small community. Several of my former students became clients in later years. It was beneficial to have instant rapport, and the background knowledge really aided in my advocacy. 

“Remote proceedings have been a game-changer in Northern Michigan and in our rural areas in general.”

I think Standard 5 has done the most to level the playing field between the prosecution and defense. Implementing Standard 5 was probably the biggest challenge, but also created a space for defenders to have some autonomy and decision-making power regarding their own cases that they hadn’t experienced before.

Can you give any examples of how the changes instituted by the MIDC have led to better results for clients? 

So many positive changes have resulted from implementation of the MIDC standards, it’s hard to choose just one example! With that said, I’ll choose my favorite. Standard 1, Education and Training of Defense Counsel. 

Before I was a Regional Manager for MIDC, I was the Lead Attorney responsible for drafting my county’s inaugural compliance plan and budget. It’s no secret there was a lot of push back about the standards back then. The widespread belief was that the state wouldn’t come through with the funding. When it happened, and attorneys were required to go to training, many quickly realized what they had been missing! I’ve heard so many great stories since the implementation of Standard 1 about how much attorneys appreciate attending training. I know several attorneys who exceed the required 12 CLEs because training is enjoyable and now easily accessible (and FREE) through remote options.  Skills trainings, in particular, are especially popular. Clients are benefiting. We are seeing an increase in motions being filed and trial successes. Most importantly, I think attorneys feel more prepared, recharged, and supported after training. The work is difficult. It’s a fulfilling and meaningful way we at MIDC can offer support, and it only accounts for a small fraction of our budget.  

What are some of the ways the work of the MIDC has changed criminal practice in Michigan? 

I already discussed training. I think one of the biggest changes resulted from imple-mentation of Standard 5, Independence from the Judiciary. Lawyers no longer have to motion the court for expert and investigative services for their assigned cases, which only served to force them to show their hand to the prosecutor and often created delays in the case. Additionally, the selection of lawyers and payment for their services is no longer controlled by the judiciary. This serves to remove any influence the court had over lawyers-political or budgetary or both. 

I think Standard 5 has done the most to level the playing field between the prosecution and defense. Implementing Standard 5 was probably the biggest challenge, but also created a space for defenders to have some autonomy and decision-making power regarding their own cases that they hadn’t experienced before. 

As we continue to emerge from the pandemic, what do we need to prioritize in the criminal legal system? 

I think we need to prioritize greater access to justice in our rural areas. We have a critical shortage of attorneys who are willing to take assigned cases in our rural communities. Several attorneys left practice after the pandemic due to retirement or burnout, and we simply don’t have enough new qualified attorneys to fill in the gaps. 

Over the last year, I’ve been heavily invested in supporting innovations around how to create a pipeline of defenders to our rural counties. Some of the funding units in the Northern Michigan Region have come up with some very creative ideas. They have hosted “recruitment panels” over Zoom and built internship stipends and living stipends for interns into their budgets. One of UP funding units in my region created a “retention and recruitment” position to coordinate initiatives that will attract qualified attorneys to rural communities across the state. Recently, our defenders have begun collaborating with the Michigan Center for Civic Education to increase the number of high school mock trial teams in Northern Michigan. And new this year: northern Michigan will host two high school mock trial tournaments, one in Suttons Bay and one in Marquette! We also continue to foster relationships with law schools, and recently worked with the folks from the Wayne State Holistic Defense Program to create a summer fellowship program for student lawyers and social work student. Our Commission has been very supportive of these efforts. 

Has the pandemic had any positive effects on the way we practice law?

I try to evaluate any awful thing that happens in life from a “something good will come of this” lens. Sometimes it is difficult to find the good. Sometimes it takes a while. From my perspective, the good that came from the pandemic is a new level of comfort with technology-among courts, attorneys, prosecutors, clients, and the general public. Remote proceedings have been a game-changer in Northern Michigan and in our rural areas in general. I know several UP lawyers who, before remote proceedings, were driving an hour or more to court for a ten-minute hearing. Obviously, this is not a good use of time and resources. Clients now don’t have to take a day off work to attend their hearing. They can take a break and Zoom into court. In counties that livestream their proceedings, the feedback from the community is that they appreciate the transparency. It allows folks who can’t get out to see what’s happening in our justice system. One judge shared with me that remote proceedings help “keep him in check,” meaning he is acutely aware that his community is watching, and so he makes sure to clearly explain the proceedings and makes extra effort to ensure a thorough record. Transparency instills trust in the system. That is always positive.

What changes would you make to the criminal legal system? 

The changes I would make are coming by way of youth defense reform. As I type this, there is a package of bills before the Legislature that would revise the MIDC Act to include standards around youth defense. Having been a long time middle and high school counselor and former youth defender myself, these are necessary changes that are near and dear to my heart. I’m excited for the work that lies ahead!

Kathy Swedlow
CDRC Manager and Editor