Author: Michael Millemann

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Turner — Inplications for Civil Gideon, the Use of Unbundled Legal Services to Provide Access, and the Lawywers Practice Monopoly

Turner, as several commentators have observed, is a glass that is neither wholly empty nor largely full. The majority opinion is useful in my view in organizing the vigorous national efforts, on several complementary fronts, that should and will continue to implement the constitutional right of civil litigants to access to the courts. For readers, I equate procedural due process, as implemented through the Mathews balancing test, and the access-to-court right. Here is what I take from the Majority Opinion in Turner, which I assume was written for Justice Kennedy:

Civil Gideon: In introduction, I note that this argument has been extraordinarily successful (well beyond my expectations), when made to the ABA, state legislatures, state access to justice commissions, and other policy-makers, based on logic, equity, justice, several different federal constitutional provisions and common sense. I hope the national leaders of the Civil Gideon movement will continue with it. For them, I would say that Turner deals only with a blatantly contemptuous, non-custodial parent who four times initially refused to provide for his child, then on each of these four occasions paid his arrearages immediately after he was sentenced to prison, proving that civil contempt works. On the 5th occasion, he “explained” that he was unable to pay because he “got back on dope…done meth, [and] smoked pot” after being released from prison the fourth time. Even then, in a compelling example of judicial patience, the court said: “If you’ve got a job, I’ll make you eligible for work release.” These facts lead to three thoughts:  First, Turner’s was truly contemptuous conduct and based on Turner’s history, there was no dispute about the only factual issue the Court identified in the case: “Could he pay”? The answer clearly was “yes” when he had to, except when he decided the 5th time to spend his money on drugs. The majority said that the central can-he-pay issue can be, as in Turner, “sufficiently straightforward to warrant determination prior to providing a defendant with counsel.” Under this extreme set of facts, some alternative form of assistance other than counsel is what is constitutionally required. Note: Justice Breyer says that a lay neutral, e.g., a social worker, based on Vitek, might have been what was required. Second, this was a truly awful test case. Third, the justice who replaces Kennedy likely will cast the 5th vote on future Civil Gideon cases, and hopefully this justice will be a second-term Obama appointment. (Justice Kennedy will be 75 this July.)

The future of Civil Gideon: To the leaders, I say: keep making Civil Gideon arguments to the ABA, state legislatures, especially to state access to justice commissions, and to other policy-makers based on logic, equity, justice, several different federal constitutional provisions and common sense. If you litigate, however, base the arguments on state declaration of rights provisions and procedural due process provisions (state and federal), the latter converting Civil Gideon into Civil Betts, as in Betts v. Brady, the precursor to Gideon, which recognized a right to counsel in criminal cases on a case by case basis.

Implications of Turner for the access-to-justice right: Supporting the provision of limited legal assistance (including “unbundled” representation) and the assistance of a lay advocate? The Majority Opinion recognizes that some form of law-related assistance is necessary to satisfy due process requirements in civil contempt cases, based on the Mathews formula. The necessary assistance might be the assistance of a social worker (e.g., Vitek), forms (probably based on the success of simplified pleading forms in limited-assistance family law projects), and whatever additional assistance provides a fair “opportunity at the hearing for the defendant to respond to” key factual disputes. Where the opposing party is represented by counsel, especially by government counsel, something more likely is required in civil contempt cases and may be required in other civil cases. That is, depending on the three Mathews factors, some of the forms of limited assistance that many legal services projects provide to indigent litigants in family law cases may be constitutionally required in some of those and other civil cases, thus validating the access to court right. Note: In Murray v. Giarratano, 492 U.S. 1, a civil post-conviction case (capital petitioner), Justice Kennedy, in casting the deciding 5th vote, found that a form of unbundled legal assistance satisfied the access-to-court right.

Implications for the lawyers’ practice monopoly: There is a warning in prior cases, see e.g., Bounds v. Smith, as well as in Turner: In enforcing the constitutionally based access-to-court right, the lawyer’s practice monopoly will yield when a trained lay advocate can provide the assistance that the Mathews’ balancing test determines is minimally required and adequate. The lawyer practice monopoly may be at risk in some civil cases in the future. This gives paralegal programs new importance and may provide additional incentive to the organized bar to support the continuing and future Civil Gideon movement.

UPDATE (June 27 at 3pm):

Upon re-reading the above, let me clarify what seems like unduly harsh criticism of Turner. What I summarize about Turner from the opinion only (not the record) is based on his pro se appearance in court. With a lawyer, the record undoubtedly would have looked different. My point was not to suggest that the Majority Opinion correctly decided the issue—to the contrary, it should have held that Turner was entitled to a lawyer. Rather, my assessment of Turner and the Turner facts was intended to suggest how the Majority Opinion might be limited, and distinguished in future Civil Gideon cases.

Michael Millemann

University of Maryland School of Law

410-706-8340

mmillem@law.umaryland.edu