Why Courts Should Care about Self-Represented Litigants

By Dickinson, Jess H. | Judicature, July/August 2007 | Go to article overview
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Why Courts Should Care about Self-Represented Litigants


Dickinson, Jess H., Judicature


Pro se representation is a part - a very important part-of the concept of "Equal Justice for All."

I have been involved in equal justice issues for about four years now, but I know that some of you have been on the front lines of this fight for decades, and I am truly humbled at the invitation to address you this evening. I know a little of what is in your hearts and what you have sacrificed and, before I begin, I just want to say that you have my admiration, my gratitude, and my respect.

In Mississippi, one of the great trial lawyer legends was Boyce Holleman, from my hometown of Gulfport. He tells a story about a banquet at the Ole Miss Law School, where he was scheduled to deliver the keynote address. They were having dinner prior to his speech, and as the waitress passed his table, he said to her, "Lady, get us some more butter." Well, she had been serving a room full of lawyers all night, and you could tell she had endured about enough. She looked at him and replied, "You're gonna have to say please." That surprised Mr. Holleman, and he said to her, "Ma'am, you must not know who I am." She said, "No, I don't . . . who are you?" He said, "I'm Boyce Holleman, the keynote speaker here tonight." She replied, "That's very interesting, Mr. Holleman. But the problem here is that you don't seem to know who I am." He said, "No, I don't. Who are you?" She said, "I'm the one who decides whether or not you get some more butter . . . and you're gonna have to say please."

There is a great lesson, I think, to be learned from that story. In calculating a person's worth, we don't always need to concentrate so much on where they are on the ladder of positions and titles. . . . Sometimes, we need to look at what they know how to do.

This conference is about self-representation. Empowering people who have legal needs to know what to do, and how to do it for themselves, in certain situations. The question I would like to explore tonight is why? Why should we spend our time here on a subject like that? The short answer is that pro se representation is a part-a very important part-of the concept of "Equal Justice for All." My use of the word, "concept" was not accidental. I chose the word carefully. I call "Equal Justice" a concept because I do not believe it is a reality.

I read an article recently in which Robert Gray, past president of the American Bar Association, said "The judicial systems of the United States are structured to ensure access to the courts and equal justice under law for all citizens." There may be some who believe that statement accurately describes our judicial system but, with all due respect to Mr. Gray (whom I admire very much), I don't happen to agree. I believe his statement was more about how things should be, rather than how they really are. Allow me to borrow his words and add a couple of my own.

The judicial systems of the United States should be structured to ensure access to the courts and equal justice under law for all citizens, but they are not.

Mr. Gray went on in the article to say something with which I do fully agree. He said,

The Constitution establishes the fundamental right of access to the judicial system. The courts, as guardians of every person's individual rights have a special responsibility to protect and enforce the right of equal access to the judicial system.

A fundamental right

In other words, the concept of equal justice and equal access to the judicial system is not some dream or aspiration, relegated to the drawing board or the agenda of the long range planning department. It is a fundamental constitutional right that should be the top priority of all three branches of government.

When I was in law school, I traveled with Professor George Cochran and my Supreme Court Practice class to Washington, D.C. to hear an oral argument before the United States Supreme Court. I will never forget, as a young law student, approaching the main entrance of the Supreme Court building on the west side.

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