“Law of the Case” Requires Appointed Counsel in Municipal Court for Defendant Whom Appellate Courts Had Found Was Indigent

State v. Mierzwa, 420 N.J. Super. 207 (App. Div. 2011).  This case involved a municipal court matter that was first tried on July 27,  2006, nearly five years ago.  On appeal from a conviction at that time, both the Law Division and the Appellate Division determined that defendant was indigent and, under Rodriguez v. Rosenblatt, 58 N.J. 281 (1971), thus entitled to a new trial in municipal court and to an appointed counsel to represent him there.  On the remand, however, the municipal court “determined that defendant did not meet the indigency income threshold and declined to appoint a municipal public defender.”

Defendant was again convicted in municipal court.  He appealed to the Law Division, where he was provided with appointed counsel.  That counsel argued that defendant had been prejudiced by the denial of counsel in municipal court.  The Law Division rejected that argument and found defendant guilty of the same offenses as had the municipal court.  Defendant then appealed to the Appellate Division.

Writing for the panel, Judge Graves held that the “law of the case” doctrine required reversal.  Both the Law Division and the Appellate Division had “explicitly found that defendant was indigent and entitled to the assignment of counsel.”  Moreover, the panel’s independent review confirmed defendant’s indigency.  Accordingly, the matter was remanded to the municipal court for a new trial at which defendant would be represented by assigned counsel.