Editor’s Note: Each year, the Minnesota Supreme Court Historical Society — in conjunction with the Minnesota State Bar’s Civil Litigation Section and the American Board of Trial Advocates – sponsors an essay contest that is open to all high school seniors in the state. Students compete for up to nine $500 scholarships. In May 2014, five students, who answered the following question, received scholarships:
Does equal access to justice for persons who cannot afford legal representation require a civil right to counsel in Minnesota under additional circumstances? If not, please state why. If so, what would those circumstances be?
This is one of those essays:
By Katelyn Gross, Hawley Secondary School
When the Founding Fathers created the Constitution and laid the foundation for this nation, they made careful plans for the court system to be fair. They knew from previous experience with Britain’s monarchy that they wanted a system that was equal for people from all walks of life. The system of checks and balances that they created ensured that no one part of the government would gain too much power, and the case of Marbury v. Madison proved that the system indeed worked. That birth of the United States justice system set forth a vision of equality that would surely be with all American citizens for years to come. Over time, it was recognized that citizens would need legal representation if they were ever faced with a criminal conviction and did not have the money to pay for a lawyer on their own. This right to legal counsel has never been enforced in the situation of civil cases, which violates Americans’ natural rights and needs to change. Beginning with the state of Minnesota, legal representation for people who cannot afford it should be offered in civil cases because: one, this would better serve people who do not understand the legal process; two, coming up with money needed to fund this type of representation should be irrelevant; and three, doing so would promote justice for the American people.
Firstly, legal representation should be offered in civil cases in Minnesota for people who cannot afford it because this would better serve people who do not understand the legal process. There are also those who would need guidance in certain civil cases if they could not handle it on their own. Giving the people the right to a lawyer in civil cases when they cannot afford it has been dubbed a “civil Gideon” after the famous Gideon v. Wainwright case in which the right to an attorney in a criminal trial became the right of a citizen. Just because someone cannot afford a lawyer does not mean that they should be exempt from having the same justice as everyone else. There are circumstances where one cannot effectively represent themselves. Mary Deutsch Schneider from Bench & Bar of Minnesota gives some examples: when someone breaks into a home and steals an expensive television set, that individual is entitled to attorney representation; by contrast, a poor person whose housing is wrongfully being taken from him is not entitled to counsel, even though the result may be homelessness for an entire family (Schneider). Homelessness is much more disastrous for a family than jail is for that one individual, and yet that family is not entitled to legal counsel. Contemplate the confusion of a disabled Minnesota man living in a substandard converted motel unit, unable to pay past-due monthly rent. Police, brandishing the innkeeper statute, threatened to arrest and jail him. If they had, at least he would have had shelter and an attorney. When those law enforcement officers were informed the matter was a civil landlord-tenant case, however, he was evicted without either (Schneider). In order for justice to take place, legal representation must be supplied to those who cannot afford it — that goes for criminal as well as civil cases.
Second of all, legal representation for people who cannot afford it should be offered in civil cases because coming up with money needed to fund this type of representation should be irrelevant. One of the arguments against making a civil Gideon in Minnesota is that it would cost too much money. Right to counsel is already underfunded — there is a limited amount of representation available when lawyers are needed in criminal cases (Giovanni). On the other hand, when one thinks about the big picture, money should not matter. California Court of Appeals Justice Earl Johnson Jr. said it best: “The constitution doesn’t end with the phrase, ‘unless it costs too much’” (Krieger). Money should not be an issue in this case. When it comes to administering justice for the well-being of the people, the people should be thought of first and the funding should not be a priority.
Third and final, legal representation in civil cases for people who cannot afford it should be offered because doing this would promote justice for the American people. Imagine someone who is alone, without any ties or family, and in a legal bind involving a civil case. Who do they have to turn to but a lawyer to help them through the ordeal? Assemblyman Mike Feurer stated: “How ironic that you can be arrested for stealing a small amount of food — a box of Twinkies from a convenience store — and you’re entitled to counsel. But if your house is on the line, or your child is on the line, or you’re being abused in a domestic relationship, you don’t have the same right to counsel” (Juhas 44). These stories, along with stories mentioned earlier, could end positively if right to counsel applied to civil cases. This would positively impact these people, as well, and spread the word of justice. These situations educate people about the way the government and justice system works. If people know more about their rights, then they spread this word along to others and promote justice across all of America. This would hopefully spread the idea of civil Gideon to all states, not just in Minnesota.
Furthermore, a civil Gideon would spread awareness of improving poverty — which also promotes justice for the American people. It is ironic that “equal justice under law” graces many courthouses in this wealthy nation while millions of poor citizens are denied the right to legal counsel in life-altering civil cases (Juhas 44). If legal counsel was granted in civil cases, there would be a chance for poverty to be overturned. Doing this would also strive for what the Founding Fathers wanted out of the judicial system in America. A movement is growing for this very reason; to promote justice, civil Gideon is slowly becoming a hotter topic. According to Russell Engler, professor at New England School of Law, the problems involving unrepresented litigants have gained more attention, and the number of state “access to justice” commissions has increased rapidly (Engler 197). This increase in fundamental justice would impact not just the citizens of the state where the change is taking place, but the entire United States, as well. Good ideas spread, and an idea that promotes justice for the betterment of America will only lead to a positive future for the nation.
In conclusion, legal representation for people who cannot afford it should be offered in civil cases in Minnesota because: one, this would better serve people who need assistance when it comes to the legal process; two, coming up with money needed to fund this type of representation should not be a priority; and three, doing so would promote justice in general for the American people. When the Founding Fathers created the justice system of our great nation, they had a vision that justice would always reside within America. In implementing a system that ensures fairness and equality for all, that vision of justice is being achieved.
Engler, Russell. “Toward a Context-Based Civil Right to Counsel Through “Access to Justice” Initiatives.” Clearinghouse REVIEW Journal of Poverty Law and Policy (2006): 196-209. Print.
Giovanni, Thomas and Roopal Patel. “Gideon at 50: Three Reforms to Revive the Right to Counsel.” Brennan Center for Justice. 9 April 2013. Web. 4 January 2014.
Juhas, Mark. “On the Anniversary of Gideon, an Argument for Free Civil Representation.” Los Angeles Lawyer (2013): 44. Print.
Krieger, Michael. “Minnesota Bar Group Examines Civil Gideon.” The Daily Record (2006). Print.
Schneider, Mary Deutsch. “Trumpeting Civil Gideon: An Idea Whose Time Has Come?” Bench & Bar of Minnesota. April 2006. Web. 4 January 2014.