Saturday, April 3, 2010
The issue is critical for indigent civil litigants seeking equal access to the federal courts.
The case arises from petitioner Lee Wilson’s federal civil rights suit against state officials under 42 U.S.C. Sec. 1983 for misreading his sentencing order and wrongfully incarcerating him five months beyond the end of his sentence. Wilson moved twice for appointment of counsel pursuant to 28 U.S.C. Sec. 1915; the district court judge in the Eastern District of Virginia denied the motions (even after the Fourth Circuit appointed appellate counsel for Wilson in his appeal of the court’s earlier dismissal of his case). Wilson sought to appeal the denial, but the Fourth Circuit ruled that it lacked appellate jurisdiction, because the denial was neither a final order nor an appealable interlocutory or collateral order. Wilson filed his cert. petition with the Supreme Court last week.
The problem for Wilson and other civil litigants under the Fourth Circuit approach is that they have to wait until the district court enters a final order in the case until they can appeal the court’s order denying the motion to appoint counsel. In the meantime, they have likely been out-gunned by an adversary represented by counsel—and thus denied equal access to justice. Wilson’s case provides a good example. He had to deal with an answer to his complaint that included 14 defenses and a 17-page legal memorandum supporting a motion for summary judgment without the assistance of counsel. He could appeal the court’s denial of appointment of counsel only after he lost his case. (Many unrepresented indigent civil litigants wouldn’t even make it that far. Some would be bullied into an unfavorable settlement, others would not know how to appeal, and others would simply give up.)
Circuits are split on the question of immediate appealability. Some, like the Fourth Circuit, hold that denial of appointment of counsel is not immediately appealable. Others hold that it is. The Ninth Circuit holds that denial of counsel is immediately appealable in some cases, but not in others. The issue is unique in that every circuit has ruled on it.
However a circuit has ruled, however, the issue evades Supreme Court review. In circuits that reject immediate appealability, the pro se litigant is unlikely to know that the circuit court’s dismissal for lack of appellate jurisdiction is appealable to the Supreme Court. In circuits that permit immediate appealability, the pro se litigant has no reason to appeal, and the opposing party is unlikely to appeal. (The opposing party’s only injury is the interlocutory appeal on whether the indigent party is entitled to representation.) The case is thus an excellent candidate for Supreme Court review.
The case makes an appealing candidate for Supreme Court review for another reason. The Court earlier this term denied cert. in Rhine v. Deaton, the Texas case involving an unrepresented mother and her quest for counsel in a private custody dispute with temporary foster parents. (We posted on that case here and here.) That case would have required the Court to reassess its ruling in Lassiter v. Department of Social Services (holding that indigent parents do not have a categorical right to appointed counsel under procedural due process). Wilson, on the other hand, would allow the Court to validate the fundamental right to equal access to justice in a low-impact way, without taking on its own precedent.