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.
Wednesday, March 17, 2010
Washington University Law School is hosting its 10th Annual Access to Equal Justice Colloquium on Friday, March 19. The Colloquium, "Challenging Structural Impediments to Substantive Justice," will dedicate its morning session to a keynote by Professor Martin Guggenheim (NYU) titled Exploring the Right to Counsel: Separation of Powers and Fact-Finding Capture and to an exploration of "a new theory for right to counsel in a variety of civil matters," or Civil Gideon.
Sunday, March 7, 2010
Judge Wayne R. Anderson of the Federal District Court for the Northern District of Illinois on Friday denied former Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld's motion to dismiss and allowed the case for authorizing cruel and inhuman treatment to go forward.
The case, Vance v. Rumsfeld, involves two American employees of a private Iraqi security firm who alleged that they were wrongly held and mistreated by the U.S. military for revealing questionable payments and purchases by their firm. Judge Anderson ruled that the plaintiffs sufficiently plead their case against Rumsfeld to overcome the pleading standards set in Twombly and Iqbal:
According to plaintiffs' allegations in their second amended complaint, Rumsfeld was personally involved in their unconstitutional treatment by his decision to approve the adoption of harsh treatment methods that were utilized at Camp Cropper during plaintiffs' confinement.
The ruling goes on to recount those allegations in some detail. (Pages 9 through 12.) (We've posted quite a bit on Twombly and Iqbal, most recently here.)
Judge Anderson wrote that "[t]wo federal courts forced to address similar issues share our conclusion": the courts in al-Kidd v. Ashcroft (9th Cir.) and Padilla v. Yoo (N.D. Cal.) both denied motions to dismiss based on Iqbal.
Judge Anderson also ruled against Rumsfeld on his qualified immunity defense (page 15) and argument that there was no Bivens remedy for the plaintiffs (page 26). On the latter issue, Judge Anderson rejected Rumsfeld's argument that separation-of-powers provided a "special factor" counseling against a Bivens remedy.
Judge Anderson, citing Hamdi, dismissed the plaintiffs' procedural due process claim. He also dismissed their access-to-courts claim, writing that the period of detention--six weeks for one plaintiff, three months for the other--were unreasonable amounts of time to make status determinations in Iraq.
March 7, 2010 in Due Process (Substantive), Executive Authority, Fundamental Rights, Jurisdiction of Federal Courts, Procedural Due Process, Recent Cases, Separation of Powers | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack (0)
Sunday, February 14, 2010
The Supreme Court on Friday ordered new briefing in Kiyemba v. Obama, the case testing the government's ability to detail the remaining Chinese Muslims, or Uighurs, at Guantanamo Bay even after everyone agreed--and a federal district court ruled on habeas--that there is no basis for detaining them. The move comes after the government earlier this month found a new home (outside the U.S.) for the remaining Uighurs, thus mooting the case. We most recently posted on the case here; Linda Greenhouse provides background and commentary for the NYT here.
Recall that Judge Urbina on the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia ruled in the Uighurs' favor and ordered their release into the United States (because at that time the government found no other country to take them). The circuit court reversed, however, ruling that release into the U.S. was an immigration matter and therefore an issue for the political branches (and not the courts) under the Constitution. Under the circuit court ruling, if the Uighurs were to be freed in the U.S., Congress and the president would have to authorize it. (This the government refused to do for any number of political reasons. The government's official position at one point in the litigation was that the Uighurs posed a threat because they were angry that the government wrongly held them so long.) The ruling effectively negated any habeas remedy the Uighurs had, as long as the government had no place to send them. This was illustrated by the government's position in the wake of the ruling: The Uighurs were free to leave Guantanamo; they just didn't have any place to go.
If the Supreme Court now rules the case moot (and thus declines to review the circuit court case), it would leave intact the circuit court ruling, eviscerating any remedy on habeas (and thus eviscerating habeas itself) for any class of detainees that the government cannot relocate (and refuses to relocate within the U.S.). This may be a narrow class of detainees, or it may be broad; this all depends on how toxic any particular detainee becomes merely as a result of their detention. (Recall that the government at one point considered the Uighurs a threat merely because it detained them (!). The government couldn't return them to their home country, China, because of a continuing threat of persecution because of their beliefs.)
February 14, 2010 in Congressional Authority, Executive Authority, Foreign Affairs, Fundamental Rights, Jurisdiction of Federal Courts, News, Procedural Due Process, Recent Cases, War Powers | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack (0)
Monday, February 8, 2010
Jane Mayer, author of The Dark Side: The Inside Story of How the War on Terror Turned into a War on American Ideals, wrote an excellent piece in the New Yorker detailing Attorney General Eric Holder's decision to try Khalid Sheikh Mohammed in the regular federal courts (and not before a military commission).
Mayer's article comes as the administration is more aggressively defending its decision to deal with some alleged terrorists through the regular criminal justice system and in Article III courts. (We posted on Holder's letter to Senator McConnell outlining the reasons for dealing with the December 25 would-be bomber through the regular criminal justice system last week.)
A good part of the administration's case is based on the prior administration's practices: The Bush administration similarly treated a number of terrorist suspects through the regular criminal justice system.
February 8, 2010 in Due Process (Substantive), Executive Authority, Foreign Affairs, Fundamental Rights, International, Jurisdiction of Federal Courts, News, Procedural Due Process, Recent Cases, War Powers | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack (0)
Wednesday, February 3, 2010
Attorney General Eric Holder today wrote to Senator Mitch McConnell defending the Justice Department's use of the regular criminal justice system--and not military tribunals--to arrest, detain, charge, and try Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab in connection with his attempted bombing of Northwest flight 253 near Detroit on December 25, 2009.
The letter is largely a political response to criticism of the administration for using the regular criminal justice system and Article III courts instead of military tribunals for suspected terrorists. But Holder includes a couple paragraphs on Constitutional issues related to detention and interrogation of terrorist suspects, defending current policies in part because they are consistent with past practice (of the Bush administration).
Here's a sample related to detention authority and what Holder calls "law of war" custody:
Since the September 11, 2001 attacks, the practice of the U.S. government, followed by prior and current Administrations without a single exception, has been to arrest and detain under federal criminal law all terrorist suspects who are apprehended inside the United States. . . .
In fact, two (and only two) persons apprehended in this country in recent times have been held under the law of war. Jose Padilla was arrested on a federal material witness warrant in 2002, and was transferred to law of war custody approximately one month later, after his court-appointed counsel moved to vacate the warrant. Ali Saleh Kahlah Al-Marri was also initially arrested on a material witness warrant in 2001, was indicted on federal criminal charges (unrelated to terrorism) in 2002, and then transferred to law of war custody approximately eighteen months later. In both of these cases, the transfer to law of war custody raised serious statutory and constitutional questions in the courts concerning the lawfulness of the government's actions and spawned lengthy litigation. In Mr. Padilla's case, the United States Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit found that the President did not have the authority to detain him under the law of war. In Mr. Al-Marri's case, the United States Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit reversed a prior panel decision and found in a fractured en banc opinion that the President did have authority to detain Mr. Al Marri, but that he had not been afforded sufficient process to challenge his designation as an enemy combatant. Ultimately both Al-Marri (in 2009) and Padilla (in 2006) were returned to law enforcement custody, convicted of terrorism charges and sentenced to prison.
Letter at 2-3 (emphasis in original). We covered Al-Marri's case most recently here.
Here's a sample related to detention authority of "enemy combatants":
Some have argued that had Abdulmutallab been declared an enemy combatant, the government could have held him indefinitely without providing him access to an attorney. But the government's legal authority to do so is far from clear. In fact, when the Bush administration attempted to deny Jose Padilla access to an attorney, a federal judge in New York rejected that position, ruling that Padilla must be allowed to meet with his lawyer. Notably, the judge in that case was Michael Mukasey, my predecessor as Attorney General. In fact, there is no court-approved system currently in place in which suspected terrorists captured inside the United States can be detained and held without access to an attorney . . . .
Letter at 5.
Wednesday, January 20, 2010
The Fred T. Korematsu Center for Law and Equality at Seattle University School of Law, the University of Washington School of Law, and Gonzaga University School of Law are co-sponsoring a symposium and CLE on Friday, February 19, at Seattle University School of Law titled Civil Legal Representation and Access to Justice: Breaking Point or Opportunity for Change. Click here for the program and registration.
This looks like an outstanding program, with a very impressive line-up. It includes some of the leading advocates and academics on the civil right to counsel. Washington State Supreme Court Chief Justice Barbara Madsen will deliver the keynote.
The symposium comes in the wake of ABA President Carolyn Lamm's call last year for a constitutional right to counsel in civil cases involving basic human needs. We posted on her call here.
January 20, 2010 in Conferences, Due Process (Substantive), Equal Protection, Fourteenth Amendment, Privileges and Immunities, Procedural Due Process, Reconstruction Era Amendments, Scholarship | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack (0)
Thursday, December 31, 2009
Thirteen state AGs--all Republicans--sent a letter to House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid setting out their constitutional objections to the provision in the Senate health care reform legislation that exempts Nebraska from paying costs of new enrollees in the Medicaid program. (Instead, under the provision, the federal government would pick up these additional costs. Senator Ben Nelson is the only senator to have successfully negotiated such an arrangement for his state.) We most recently posted on this here.
From the letter:
In Helvering v. Davis . . . the United States Supreme Court warned that Congress does not possess the right under the Spending Power to demonstrate a "display of arbitrary power." Congressional spending cannot be arbitrary and capricious. The spending power of Congress includes authority to accomplish policy objectives by conditioning receipt of federal funds on compliance with statutory directives, as in the Medicaid program. However, the power is not unlimited and "must be in pursuit of the 'general welfare.'" South Dakota v. Dole . . . . In Dole the Supreme Court stated, "that conditions on federal grants might be illegitimate if they are unrelated to the federal interest in particular national projects or programs." . . . It seems axiomatic that the federal interest in H.R. 3590 is not simply requiring universal health care, but also ensuring that the states share with the federal government the cost of providing such care to their citizens. This federal interest is evident from the fact this legislation would require every state, except Nebraska, to shoulder its fair share of the increased Medicaid costs the bill will generate. The provision of the bill that relieves a single state from this cost-sharing program appears to be not only unrelated, but also antithetical to the legitimate federal interests in the bill.
This seems deeply confused on a number of points. First, both Helvering and Dole emphasize the expansive nature of the spending power and Congress's--not the courts'--discretion in determining what constitutes the "general welfare." From Helvering:
Congress may spend money in aid of the "general welfare." . . . There have been great statesmen in our history who have stood for other views. We will not resurrect the contest. It is now settled by decision. United States v. Butler. . . . The conception of the spending power advocated by Hamilton and strongly reinforced by Story has prevailed over that of Madison, which has not been lacking in adherents. Yet difficulties are left when the power is conceded. The line must still be drawn between one welfare and another, between particular and general. Where this shall be placed cannot be known through a formula in advance of the event. There is a middle ground, or certainly a penumbra, in which discretion is at large. The discretion, however, is not confided to the courts. The discretion belongs to Congress, unless the choice is clearly wrong, a display of arbitrary power, not an exercise of judgment. This is now familiar law.
Next, the AGs ask too much of the "arbitrary" standard. This is a very low standard, not requiring much. Surely the Nebraska compromise cannot be "arbitrary." This is especially true in light of the all-too-numerous state-specific benefits that we see in any major piece of legislation--any one of which is at least as "arbitrary" as the Nebraska compromise.
Third, it's not clear how or why conditional spending plays any part in a constitutional analysis of the Nebraska compromise. Nothing's conditioned here.
Finally, it's not at all obvious that a part of the purpose of the legislation is to get states to pay jointly with the federal government. As Professor Mark Tushnet said, the legislation could ultimately aim to get the federal government to pay all of the increased costs; Nebraska simply represents the first step.
The other points in the letter seem equally confused. For example, the Privileges and Immunities Clause of Article IV has been interpreted as a restriction only against the states, not Congress. (The Privileges or Immunities Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment obviously doesn't apply at all--by its plain terms it restricts only the states.) There's no Due Process problem here. And any Equal Protection problem would get only rational basis review. The courts would almost certainly uphold the provision for the reasons that Professor Tushnet articulated, among others.
The AGs dropped the Port Preferences Clause claim.
December 31, 2009 in Congressional Authority, Due Process (Substantive), Equal Protection, Federalism, Fundamental Rights, News, Privileges and Immunities, Procedural Due Process, Spending Clause | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack (0)
Tuesday, December 8, 2009
The Supreme Court yesterday ruled that the plaintiffs' procedural due process claim in Alvarez v. Smith was moot, after the parties resolved their property disputes during the course of the litigation.
The case involved the Illinois Drug Asset Forfeiture Procedure Act ("DAFPA"), which authorizes local law enforcement to seize vehicles, aircraft, vessels, and money involved in certain drug crimes. Under DAFPA, authorities can hold property worth more than $20,000 for up to 97 days after the seizure and before the state's attorney files judicial forfeiture proceedings. Authorities can hold property worth less than $20,000 for up to 187 days before the state's attorney files forfeiture proceedings.
Six plaintiffs who had cars and cash seized under the DAFPA sued the Cook County State's Attorney under 42 U.S.C. Sec. 1983, arguing that the DAFPA violated, on its face, the three-part procedural due process balancing test in U.S. v. James Daniel Good Real Property and Mathews v. Eldridge. The Seventh Circuit ruled for the plaintiffs.
The Supreme Court asked the parties to brief mootness, and, at oral argument, learned that the parties resolved the property dispute: the state returned all seized cars, and individual property owners either forfeited the cash or accepted the state's partial return as final. A unanimous Court rejected the plaintiffs' argument that they sought certification as a class (because plaintiffs did not appeal the denial of class certification) and the argument that the practice was "capable of repetition" while "evading review" (because the plaintiffs failed to show that they were likely again to be subject to the DAFPA, citing Los Angeles v. Lyons) and ruled the claim moot.
Justice Stevens filed a partial dissent in the case, arguing that the Court should not have vacated the Seventh Circuit's judgment.
Wednesday, December 2, 2009
The Senate Judiciary Committee heard testimony today from three witnesses on the impact of Ashcroft v. Iqbal and Bell Atlantic Corp. v. Twombly, the two Supreme Court cases that heightened the federal pleading standard and resulted in a rash of dismissed suits and Senator Specter's bill, S. 1504, to undo those cases. We most recently covered this here; the Blog of the Legal Times covered the hearing here.
John Payton, President and Director-Counsel of the NAACP LDF, urged the Committee to act immediately to undo the cases. In contrast, Gregory Garre, former SG who argued Iqbal, testified that we can't yet know Iqbal's impact, and that any moves to undo that case are premature. Stephen Burbank (Penn) proposed substitute legislation (in Appendix A, page 23 of his testimony) that would return the pleading standard to its level before Iqbal and Twombly, would declare those cases "inconsistent with the fundamental premises underlying the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure, with the Court's previous decisions interpreting those rules, and with congressional expectations formed and relied upon over a period of more than seventy years," and would provide for a "thorough study by appropriate institutions through processes that are open and inclusive."
According to the BLT, only one Committee member, Jeff Sessions, supported Garre's position urging caution.
Tuesday, November 24, 2009
With the introduction last week of a bill in the House to overturn Ashcroft v. Iqbal and Bell Atlantic Corp. v. Twombly, the movement among plaintiffs' and open-courts advocates to re-set the pleading standard in federal courts is gaining momentum. The American Association for Justice, which is leading a broad coalition in support of the bill, released this statement last week.
A 5-4 Supreme Court ruled last term in Iqbalthat allegations in an ex-detainee's complaint against former AG Ashcroft and FBI Director Mueller for constitutional torts while in custody after 9/11 were too conclusory to withstand a motion to dismiss. The Court, applying its new pleading principles set in Twombley, ruled that Iqbal had to plead more than "bare assertions amount[ing] to nothing more than a 'formulaic recitation of the elements' of a constitutional discrimination claim"--that he had to plead a "plausible" claim for relief that the courts could evaluate based on "judicial experience and common sense."
The standards effectively heightened the 50-year-old notice pleading standard set in Conley v. Gibson. That case held that a complaint should not be dismissed "unless it appears beyond doubt that the plaintiff can prove no set of facts in support of his claim which would entitle him to relief."
Soon after Iqbal came down last spring, defendants' "Iqbal motions" proliferated in federal court, and numerous complaints were dismissed for failure to meet the new heightened pleading standard.
This past summer, Senator Specter introduced legislation (aptly titled the "Notice Pleading Restoration Act") to re-set the pleading standard at the old level under Conley v. Gibson. The House Judiciary Committee held a hearing last month here. And most recently--just last week--Rep. Jerrold Nadler introduced legislation (the "Open Access to Courts Act") in the House. Unlike Specter's bill, which sets the standard as that "set forth . . . in Conley v. Gibson," Nadler's bill includes specific language from Conley v. Gibson:
A court shall not dismiss a complaint under subdivision (b)(6), (c) or (e) of Rule 12 of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure unless it appears beyond doubt that the plaintiff can prove no set of facts in support of the claim which would entitle the plaintiff to relief. A court shall not dismiss a complaint under one of those subdivisions on the basis of a determination by the judge that the factual contents of the complaint do not show the plaintiff's claim to be plausible or are insufficient to warrant a reasonable inference that the defendant is liable for the misconduct alleged.
The American Association for Justice coalition last month wrote to the Senate Judiciary Committee couching its claims in constitutional terms:
The new standards substantially hamper access to the courts for people who are harmed by illegal conduct, undermine the fundamental right to a jury trial, and infringe the rights of civil plaintiffs to due process of law, fundamental fairness and their day in court.
Monday, November 23, 2009
The American Constitution Society (Chicago Lawyer Chapter and John Marshall Law School Student Chapter) and the ACLU hosted a panel discussion on health care in prisons last week titled Health Care Behind Bars: Are Inmates' Health Care Needs Being Met? The panel featured Judge Easterbrook (7th Cir.), Dr. Michael Puisis (Cermak Health Services), and Benjamin Wolf (ACLU) in a lively discussion about the constitutional rights to health care of prisoners.
The recording is here.
Prisoners, by virtue of their incarceration and dependency on the state, have a right to health care under the Eighth Amendment. The Court wrote in Estelle v. Gamble:
These elementary [Eighth Amendment] principles establish the government's obligation to provide medical care for those whom it is punishing by incarceration. An inmate must rely on prison authorities to treat his medical needs; if the authorities fail to do so, those needs will not be met. In the worst cases, such a failure may actually produce physical "torture or a lingering death" . . . the evils of most immediate concern to the drafters of the Amendment. In less serious cases, denial of medical care may result in pain and suffering which no one suggests would serve any penological purpose. . . . The infliction of such unnecessary suffering is inconsistent with contemporary standards of decency as manifested in modern legislation codifying the common-law view that "[i]t is but just that the public be required to care for the prisoner, who cannot by reason of the deprivation of his liberty, care for himself."
The panel conversation at one point (around 40:00 in the recording) turned to the nature of negative (not positive) rights in our constitutional tradition and the state's obligations to provide care and protection (or not) to those in its custody (or not) under DeShaney v. Winnebago.
The discussion added a dimension to my own lessons on DeShaney and Castle Rock v. Gonzales. Perhaps you can use it, too.
Wednesday, October 21, 2009
ABA President Carolyn Lamm called for a constitutional right to counsel in civil cases involving basic human needs, a "Civil Gideon," in the President's Message in the October 2009 ABA Journal.
Lamm argues that Civil Gideon is a part of a broader strategy, including increased pro bono efforts and increased legal aid funding, in meeting dire legal needs in the current economic crisis:
But we must do much more. Lawyers and advocates nationwide have been working hard, with ABA support, for the right to counsel in civil matters where basic human needs are at stake—a “civil Gideon” policy. They are making progress case by case, state by state, jurisdiction by jurisdiction. Most recently, in the Alaska Supreme Court case of Office of Public Advocacy v. Alaska Court System, the ABA filed an amicus brief supporting civil Gideon. This fundamental right must be recognized by courts and legislatures—and fully funded.
The issue may come to the Supreme Court this term. Earlier this month, in a highly unusual move, the Court asked the Texas Solicitor General for views at the cert. stage on Rhine v. Deaton, a civil right to counsel case involving a Texas mother's private custody dispute with temporary foster parents. See more here and here. The Court has not previously recognized a categorical right to counsel under the federal Constitution; instead, it created a barrier to such a right under Fourteenth Amendment procedural due process in Lassiter v. Department of Social Services.
Lamm's article comes the same month that the state of California enacted legislation to provide for a pilot program providing a civil right to counsel in cases involving basic human needs. In the bill, the California legislature made its own finding that a civil right to counsel in these cases is supported by constitutional demands for equality and equal access to justice.
California now joins several states that, through their judiciaries or state legislatures, have arrived at similar conclusions. Perhaps the time is right for Civil Gideon to bubble up to the Fourteenth Amendment in Rhine.
October 21, 2009 in Due Process (Substantive), Equal Protection, Fourteenth Amendment, Fundamental Rights, News, Procedural Due Process, Recent Cases, Reconstruction Era Amendments | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack (0)
Tuesday, October 13, 2009
The Supreme Court will hear arguments tomorrow in Alvarez v. Smith, a case involving competing due process tests when law enforcement seize property related to crimes.
At issue is the Illinois Drug Asset Forfeiture Procedure Act ("DAFPA"), which authorizes local law enforcement to seize vehicles, aircraft, vessels, and money involved in certain drug crimes. Under DAFPA, authorities can hold property worth more than $20,000 for up to 97 days after the seizure and before the state's attorney files judicial forfeiture proceedings. Authorities can hold property worth less than $20,000 for up to 187 before the state's attorney files forfeiture proceedings. (Claimants may reduce that time to 142 days under certain circumstances.)
Claimants sued the Cook County State's Attorney under 42 U.S.C. Sec. 1983, arguing that the DAFPA violated, on its face, the three-part procedural due process balancing test in United States v. James Daniel Good Real Property and Mathews v. Eldridge.
The state argued that the Seventh Circuit's ruling in Jones v. Takaki governed. That case relied upon United States v. $8,850 and Barker v. Wingo in ruling that criminal property seizures are governed by the test for speedy trial: "The Barker test requires consideration of the length of the delay, the reason for the delay, the defendant's assertion of his right, and the prejudice to the defendant." Smith v. City of Chicago, at 4.
A three-judge panel of the Seventh Circuit (Bauer, Posner, and Evans) sided with the claimants and ruled that the DAFPA violated the Fourteenth Amendment Due Process Clause. The court aligned the case with Krimstock v. Kelly, a Second Circuit ruling by then-Judge Sotomayor that applied Mathews v. Eldridge, not $8,850:
[A] warrantless arrest by itself does not constitute an adequate, neutral "procedure" for testing the City's justification for continued and often lengthy detention of a vehicle which may be owned by the arrestee or by someone entirely unconnected with the conduct that gave rise to the arrest. Further, to say that the forfeiture proceeding, which often occurs more than a year after a vehicle's seizure, represents a meaningful opportunity to be heard at a meaningful time on the issue of continued impoundment is to stretch the sense of that venerable phrase to the breaking point. We also consider it a non sequitur to hold . . . that because postponing the commencement of a forfeiture action pending the underlying criminal proceeding may not offend due process, retention of the seized vehicle without a hearing throughout that same period, or longer, is constitutionally permissible. The issues of a speedy trial and a prompt retention hearing are not parallel in this context, particularly when less restrictive methods for protecting the City's interest in the alleged offending res are available.
Krimstock, at 18. The Seventh Circuit similarly distinguished $8,850: "$8,850 concerns the speed with which the civil forfeiture proceeding itself is begun--a different question from whether there should be some mechanism to promptly test the validity of the seizure." Smith, at 6.
Thus the issue before the Court tomorrow is which test governs: the Mathews v. Eldridge procedural due process test; or the Barker speedy trial test, applied in $8,850?
Monday, October 12, 2009
California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger early today signed AB 590, the California Assembly bill directing court fees and fines to services designed to promote and enhance access to the judiciary and to a pilot project to appoint legal counsel to low-income parties in "civil matters involving critical issues affecting basic human needs . . . ." I posted on this last month, after the Assembly passed the bill, here.
The bill includes findings that the civil right to counsel is supported by "[t]he doctrine of equal justice under law" and that "[e]qual access to justice without regard to income is a fundamental right in a democratic society."
For more on the civil right to counsel movement in California and around the country, check out the National Coalition for a Civil Right to Counsel web-site.
Tuesday, October 6, 2009
The Brennan Center for Justice (NYU) today issued an outstanding report on the lack of legal representation for those facing foreclosures. (I previously posted on this issue here.) The report, titled Foreclosures: A Crisis in Legal Representation, offers a sobering look at this critical problem:
In Connecticut, over 60 percent of defendants facing property foreclosure in 2007-08 did not have counsel.
In New York, 84 percent of defendants in proceedings in Queens County involving foreclosures on "subprime," "high cost" or "non-traditional" mortgages (which are mortgages disproportionately targeted to low-income and minority homeowners) proceeded without full legal representation. In Richmond County (Staten Island), 91 percent of such defendants were unrepresented, and in Nassau County, 92 percent were unrepresented.
In Stark County, Ohio, heavily impacted by foreclosures, data suggests that 86 percent of defendants facing property foreclosures did not have counsel in 2008.
The report argues that "[u]nless and until the foreclosure process and laws are simplified to the point where legal counsel is not necessary, each homeowner facing foreclosure should be provided with an opportunity to consult with a trained counselor and then to receive fuller representation by a lawyer where necessary to ensure just and fair proceedings."
Such a civil right to counsel may not be far off. The Supreme Court yesterday took the exceedingly unusual step of asking the Texas Solicitor General for his views on a civil right to counsel case coming out of that state. The case, Rhine v. Deaton, involves a biological mother's private custody dispute with temporary foster parents. The Texas courts denied appointed counsel to the mother, and she filed for Supreme Court review. The parties have filed their cert. briefs, and the Court invited the Texas SG to provide his views.
I posted an analysis of the case this summer, suggesting that the mother faces a major hurdle in Lassiter v. Department of Social Services, a 1981 case denying a right to counsel for a poor mother in similar circumstances. The Court in that case used the three-factor procedural due process balancing test in Mathews v. Eldridge and weighed the balance against a newly discovered presumption against appointed counsel in cases where physical liberty is not at stake. (A claimed right to counsel in foreclosure cases would face the same burden under Fourteenth Amendment Due Process. Some litigants have seen success, however, using state constitutional provisions. Rhine's case comes up under the Fourteenth Amendment.)
M.L.B. v. S.L.J., a 1996 case involving a poor mother's ability to appeal an order terminating her parental rights, may have partially eroded Lassiter's foundations--or at least it may have given plaintiffs a new set of constitutional tools to work with. The Court in that case held that the mother had a right under Equal Protection and Due Process to appeal the order, even though she couldn't pay the appellate fees. Unlike Lassiter, M.L.B. thus wasn't tethered only to procedural due process. It gives litigants much more to work with. (As I argue here and here, it gives litigants very much more.)
The Court's consideration of Rhine suggests that it may be willing to reconsider the Lassiter analysis and its groundless presumption in light of M.L.B. It's not clear what the Court seeks from the Texas SG, but it may be seeking more information on the procedural complexities in Texas termination-of-parental rights proceedings--information that goes directly to one of the Mathews factors and would be relevant to an M.L.B.-type analysis.
This is one to watch.
Monday, September 28, 2009
The California Assembly earlier this month passed a bill, AB 590, to direct court fees and fines to services designed to promote and enhance access to the judiciary and to a pilot project to appoint legal counsel to low-income parties in "civil matters involving critical issues affecting basic human needs . . . ." Under the pilot project, "proposals to provide counsel in child custody cases should be considered among the highest priorities for funding, particularly when one side is represented and the other is not." The LA Times on Friday encouraged the governor to sign the bill.
In passing the bill, the legislature made several key constitutional findings, including these:
The doctrine of equal justice under the law is based on two principles. One is that the substantive protections and obligations of the law shall be applied equally to everyone, no matter how high or low their station in life. The second principle involves access to the legal system. Even if we have fair laws and an unbiased judiciary to apply them, true equality before the law will be thwarted if people cannot invoke the laws for their protection. For persons without access, our system provides no justice at all, a situation that may be far worse than one in which the laws expressly favor some and disfavor others.
Many judicial leaders acknowledge that the disparity in outcomes is so great that indigent parties who lack representation regularly lose cases that they would win if they had counsel. A growing body of empirical research confirms the widespread perception that parties who attempt to represent themselves are likely to lose, regardless of the merits of their case, particularly when the opposing party has a lawyer, while parties represented by counsel are far more likely to prevail. . . .
Equal access to justice without regard to income is a fundamental right in a democratic society.
The U.S. Supreme Court has never gone so far. The Supreme Court has treated claims for civil counsel under the procedural due process test in Mathews v. Eldridge. The Court in Mathews determined the constitutionally mandated process by balancing the litigant's interest, the government's interest, and the risk that the process used would lead to an erroneous deprivation.
The leading case on the civil right to counsel is Lassiter v. Department of Social Services. In Lassiter, the Court rejected a poor litigant's claim for appointed counsel in a termination-of-parental-rights case. The Court ruled that poor litigants have a right to appointed counsel in civil cases only when the Mathews factors weigh so heavily in favor of appointment as to overcome a presumption that there is a right to appointed counsel only when personal freedom is at stake. (The Lassiter Court created this presumption; it nowhere existed as such in the Court's cases.)
Federal constitutional claims for civil right to counsel have always run up against Lassiter and its presumption. But litigants have successfully won a state constitutional right to counsel in several states under state due process and equal protection principles.
California, through its majoritarian processes and not its courts, now is poised to add itself to the growing list of states that recognize a constitutional civil right to counsel.
For more on the civil right to counsel movement, check out the National Coalition for a Civil Right to Counsel web-site.
Wednesday, July 15, 2009
Tracey Rhine, a Texas mother who lost custody of her child to temporary foster parents in a private custody dispute in the Texas courts, filed a cert. petition with the U.S. Supreme Court to challenge the Texas courts' denial of appointed counsel, according to the Texas Lawyer.
The Texas Department of Protective and Regulatory Services removed Rhine's child from Rhine's custody and placed the child with a temporary foster couple. After Rhine and the Department agreed upon conditions, the Department placed the child back with Rhine. The foster couple then sought custody in the Texas courts, and Rhine moved for court-appointed counsel. The Texas courts rejected Rhine's request for appointed trial counsel and awarded custody to the foster parents. The state appellate court rejected Rhine's request for appointed appellate counsel and remanded the case to the trial court. The trial court found that Rhine was indigent, but did not qualify for court-appointed counsel, because the underlying custody case was not initiated by the state (it was initiated by the foster parents).
Texas law provides for court-appointed counsel for indigent litigants in state-initiated deprivation-of-parental-rights proceedings, but not in private custody disputes. The differential treatment raises equal protection concerns, and Rhine argued in her cert. petition that the Texas courts' denial of appointed counsel in her case violated the Fourteenth Amendment Equal Protection Clause.
Rhine's argument is not without precedent--but it's state constitutional precedent. The Illinois and North Dakota courts have ruled that state equal protection doctrine mandates appointment of counsel under similar circumstances. California courts have gone the other way under their state constitution.
Rhine's argument on equal protection grounds also sidesteps the major hurdle that plaintiffs face in seeking a civil right to counsel: the Supreme Court's 1981 case Lassiter v. Department of Social Services. In that case, the Court ruled that an indigent litigant had no categorical right to counsel under the Due Process Clause--that due process demanded a balance (the Mathews v. Eldridge balance) to determine whether an indigent litigant qualified for appointed counsel in any particular case. Oddly--and without citation to authority--the Court in Lassiter established a presumption against appointed counsel except in cases where physical liberty was at stake.
Rhine's case avoids the Lassiter hurdle by arguing equal protection, not due process. And on the right to appellate counsel, Rhine's case at least potentially avoids the Lassiter hurdle by pursuing an argument tilted toward equal protection under Douglas v. California (establishing a right to appellate counsel for criminal defendants on equal protection grounds). (I made that argument here and here.) Thus Rhine doesn't appear to be taking on Lassiter--that could have been a tough case in the current political and economic environment, and with the current composition of the Court. Instead, Rhine is moving around Lassiter with an argument that worked under at least two state constitutions.
If the Court takes the case, three issues will be important to watch: first, the Court's treatment of the Fourteenth Amendment Equal Protection Clause; second, the Court's treatment of access to justice issues (and, possibly, how it treats the fundamental right to access in Tennessee v. Lane in this different context); and finally, the Court's treatment of state constitutional rulings on parallel provisions.
For more on the civil right to counsel movement, check out the National Coalition for a Civil Right to Counsel web-site.
Monday, May 25, 2009
Mohammed Jawad, detained at Guantanamo at age 12 or 18 (depending on whom you talk to), is stuck in limbo at Guantanamo until the Obama administration works out its new detention and trial policies for Guantanamo detainees. Jawad's attorneys, frustrated by the delays and potential changes in policies just as Jawad's military trial started going his way, sought an order last week from Afghan courts to release Jawad, reports the NYT. The lawyers argue that Afghanistan's constitution at the time of Jawad's capture did not allow for the extradition of prisoners to another country.
Any order from the Afghan courts could only exert diplomatic pressure--not legal pressure--against the U.S. and U.S. courts. But Jawad's move to seek relief from the Afghan judiciary is also calculated to keep public attention on this troubling case of the (perhaps) youngest detainee, caught between an old military tribunal system and a (potentially) new one.
The case highlights the new due process problems arising from the administration's review of detention policy and potentially revamped military tribunals. As Jawad's military attorney said in the NYT piece: "We were in a winnning posture in the trial, so to now come along and change the rules in the middle of the game, who knows what's going to happen." Given the options President Obama set out in his speech last week, it's not even obvious that Jawad will be subject to a revamped military tribunal--especially because there may not be evidence to convict him. (Jawad's military judge threw out his confessions last October, because Afghan police threatened to kill his familly.) If not, and if he's not moved to an Article III court, he could fall into Obama's fifth category of detainees--those subject to (apparently) indefinite detention.
Monday, April 13, 2009
Stephen Loffredo (CUNY) and Don Friedman (Empire Justice Center at the William Randolph Hearst Public Advocacy Center at Touro) recently published Gideon Meets Goldberg: The Case for a Qualified Right to Counsel in Welfare Hearings as part of the Touro Law Review issue on the right to counsel in civil cases, "Civil Gideon," in New York. This is a fresh perspective on a critically important issue; I highly recommend it.
Loffredo and Friedman's piece joins an increasing academic and practice-oriented literature and a coordinate body of litigation that sometimes goes under the name "Civil Gideon" and sometimes under "civil right to counsel." In truth, "Civil Gideon" doesn't quite capture the movement--this is really about more than simply applying the right to counsel established in Gideon v. Wainwright to civil litigants. "Civil right to counsel" is a broader, better name to capture a movement that seeks counsel for poor litigants in an orchestrated effort in state legislatures, administrative agencies, bar associations, law firms, legal services offices, and even law schools, as well the courts.
Insofar as the movement seeks to establish a constitutional right to counsel through the courts, however, it continually runs up against Lassiter v. Dep't of Social Services. That case held that a poor parent didn't have a categorical right to counsel in a state-initiated proceeding to terminate parental rights under the Due Process Clause. The Court weighed the balancing factors in Mathews v. Eldridge against a newly created presumption against counsel in civil cases. Given the importance of parental rights (Mathewsfactor 1.) and the high probability of an erroneous termination of parental rights without counsel (Mathews factor 2.), a parental rights case seemed the best type of case through which to press a civil right to counsel under a procedural due process theory. The Court's rejection in Lassiter therefore poses a significant barrier for poor litigants seeking counsel in other kinds of claims (like welfare) and, more generally, a significant barrier for the civil right to counsel movement.
Loffredo and Friedman argue that Lassiter and Goldberg v. Kelly representan underenforced constitutional norm for the right to counsel. That is: The Court's refusal to declare a due process right to counsel "stems principally from institutional and separation of powers concerns pertaining to the limited role and capacity of the judiciary," and that it therefore "ought not be regarded as [a] definitive statement of the full meaning and scope of constitutional due process."
Loffredo and Friedman argue that legislatures are not so constrained. Their move, then, is to turn their argument to the legislature. They argue that the state legislature, as a matter of procedural due process, should provide counsel to the poor in particular welfare cases where the Mathews factors align most obviously in favor of counsel. These include cases where "[a]n impoverished family threatened with termination or reduction of subsistence benefits faces the severest sorts of injury and privation," where counsel is particularly necessary for a poor litigant to protect his or her rights, and where the government's interest in saving money aligns with the poor litigant's interest in resolving the matter quickly and correctly.
By presenting this constitutional argument to the legislature (and not the courts) under an underenforced constitutional norm theory, Loffredo and Friedman bypass the Lassiter presumption and Goldberg's modesty, the most significant barriers to claims for a constitutional right to counsel in the courts. Loffredo and Friedman:
Lassiter recognized that certain alignments of the Mathews factors in the parental rights setting would tip the scales decisively enough to overcome the Court's presumption against a right to counsel. As demonstrative above, at least some welfare cases present a comparably decisive alignment of Mathews factors that would warrant a judicially ordered assignment of counsel. But regardless of whether the courts would enforce a due process right to representation in the welfare context, the legislature bears a broader, independent obligation to ensure that individuals receive the full protection of that constitutional right, undiminished by limiting constructions that the judiciary, for separation of powers or related institutional reasons, may adopt as a matter of prudential self-restraint. Even if one regards the full measure of the due process norm as extending no further than the Mathewsanalysis, shorn of Lassiter's presumption, that analysis makes plain that the absence of counsel from particular welfare hearings denies due process to many thousands of the state's poorest and most vulnerable families. The legislature is therefore duty-bound to act.
Loffredo and Friedman conclude with specific recommendations for identifying cases that meet their standard and qualify for a right to counsel. (They also include as an Appendix two transcripts of pro se hearings that are quite convincing on the problems litigants face without counsel.)
Moral, economic, and policy arguments to state legislatures haven't always been successful, and that's why the civil right to counsel movement has so often turned to the courts. But Loffredo and Friedman offer a new constitutional argument. It's appealing on moral, economic, and policy grounds; but, they argue, it's compelled on constitutional grounds.
This is an important contribution to this area. I highly recommend it.