Equal Justice and the Poor

Many years ago, I attended my first meeting as a newly-elected representative on our church’s parish council. I was enthused, energized. Then an older man, a veteran of the council, pulled me aside before the meeting started and gave me a warning. “Now you’re going to have your eyes opened, ” he said. “It’s a lot easier when you don’t know about all of the issues.” And, of course, he was right.

I had the same experience some time later when I became involved in the most pressing problem facing our legal system: the inability of poor people to afford legal representation for the important life-changing issues they face. I had been involved in pro bono from the day I was graduated from Marquette, handling divorces, landlord-tenant issues, even a capital punishment case in Texas. I enjoyed the rewarding nature of the work and appreciated the hands-on experience. The clients I represented seemed to appreciate having a lawyer.

But while I was helping individuals now and then, and feeling comfortable that I was doing some good, I was blissfully ignorant of the big picture issues and challenges that had the system in a chokehold — the lack of funding for legal service providers, the reluctance of lawyers to become involved in pro bono, the resistance of some to changes in the delivery of legal services to poor people, the lack of leadership from those in the best position to lead. My eyes were anything but open.

And then, thinking it might be interesting, I joined the Legal Services to the Indigent Committee of the Milwaukee Bar Association. I was asked to sit on the board of Legal Action of Wisconsin. More committees and boards followed and soon I was immersed in, and sometimes overwhelmed by, the challenge of securing access to justice for poor people. Once again, I discovered that it is a lot easier when you don’t know about all of the issues.

The problem of the unrepresented poor should not be easy for any of us, however, and the issues that compound the problem are too important to be ignored. I hope to heighten your awareness of them as the alumni blogger this month. These issues raise questions with no easy answers. They occupy the time and effort of a relatively small group of people, but they should tax all of us.

They go right to the heart of equal justice under the law.


This Post Has One Comment

  1. Jennifer Simpson

    Because I am poor I have been denied equal access to the court and equal protection of the law since I was a young adolescent. That caused me immeasurable injury for over 20 years. The legal matter I am involved in today is part of that injury.

    Because I am poor and the state was seeking to incarcerate me the trial court was required,in accordance with my state precedent, to sua sponte appoint counsel to me when I was dragged into court for contempt of their default order that accrued without service or enforcement for a decade.
    Unfortunately, I was suffering from psychological injury, I was oblivious to my rights,had no knowledge of the law, I was also under the undue influence of an officer of the court and the trial Court did not appoint me counsel, therefore, I suffered deprivation of rights.

    I learned of the law and filed motion for relief from judgment. The Trial Court of course denied it. Another court appointed me counsel to perfect the appeal from the denial of relief.

    I did not get that appointed counsel because the court reporter has refused to type the order. The court hearing is meaningless without the order so counsel will not assist me.

    Regardless, to preserve my appeal 28 days into the 30 day time limit I tried to proceed as a pauper on appeal, however, I had to pay the $250.00 filing fee to cure a defect in notice of appeal because I did not know I had to petition the trial court to proceed as a pauper.

    I then found in the local rule that I could receive county or state indigent transcripts. No, I can’t, time is up and now I need to pay a $1000.00 deposit before the transcripts will be started. My case involves family related issues therefore there is no extension in time.

    I can’t fully present my case without the transcripts. This is absurd! $1250.00 is too much money for me for me to pay… I don’t have it. This case cost me everything, I’ve been wrongfully arrested, maliciously prosecuted, held in involuntary servitude, my driving privileges have been stripped, I lost my job all because of this court’s unlawful default judgment and me being too incapacitated to know my rights and too poor to hire an attorney. Then the trial Court who is supposed to be honorable plays games with me to deny me access the appellant court.

    I must be able to access the appeals court. What can I do other than sell anything of value I might have left. That is insane. I am preparing to pawn my 3 small children’s Christmas presents – their video games, my bicycle, my lawn mower and the last piece of my business… my floor scrubber/ buffer to pay for court transcripts so I can present my case to the appellant court.

    This is disgusting and should be an embarrassment to our justice system, especially given the pathetic history of my case. This is not equal access or equal protection. Then because it was a court’s actions there is no recourse for the intentional cause of emotional distress or the loss of property and liberty. It’s just too much and not fair.

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