Judge advocates expanding Gideon to provide lawyers in non-criminal cases

Marilyn Odendahl
July 31, 2013
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While some legal scholars lament the deterioration of Gideon v. Wainwright 50 years after the landmark Supreme Court of the United States decision, Marion Superior Judge David Dreyer is calling for an expansion of the principle to include civil litigants.

dreyercivil-15col.jpg Marion Superior Judge David Dreyer (IL Photo/ Aaron P. Bernstein)

He has put his ideas into an academic article and plans to continue his research for his dissertation work at the National Judicial College. The basic premise of his paper is that in almost every civil case, people should be assured of having access to legal advice and representation. Without that, the fairness of the judicial system becomes questionable.  

“What’s at stake to me is the rule of law because, to me, ensuring access to justice in civil cases for everyone is a basic tenant of national security and civil order,” Dreyer said. “If people felt like they had redress, which we say we do in America, then there would be less alienation.”

His paper, “Déjà vu All Over Again: Turner v. Rogers and the Civil Right to Counsel,” which is to be published in Drake Law Review, examines the history and court opinions on civil right to counsel. It also pays attention to the barriers to obtaining counsel and the consequences of not having representation.

Dreyer looks at the idea of civil right to counsel through the U.S. Supreme Court case Turner v. Rogers, 131 S. Ct. 2507 (2011).

In that case, a South Carolina man who was $5,728.76 behind in child support payments was jailed for 12 months after a civil contempt hearing. Both parties were unrepresented by counsel at trial.

Once the man was released, he argued the U.S. Constitution entitled him to counsel at his contempt hearing. The majority found that the Due Process Clause of the 14th Amendment does not require civil counsel be provided to indigent individuals at contempt hearings even if that individual’s liberty is at stake.

Dreyer believes the court accepted the case because it wanted to take a close look at the notion of civil right to counsel. In fact, he maintains, the justices really wanted to grant this right but, in the end, they couldn’t.

Some advocates for civil counsel see progress in the ruling, or at least read it as better than nothing. Dreyer understands that point of view but also agrees with the opposite interpretation that the decision is really the same decision that has been handed down by courts in years past.

Hence, he turned to baseball legend Yogi Berra to encapsulate what the Turner v. Rogers ruling is: “Déjà vu all over again.”

Dreyer asked: How can it be fair when people do not have access to advice and representation from lawyers because they do not have money? He, along with others, thinks that question has never been satisfactorily answered, and he is not convinced it could ever be fair.

“If you don’t have a lawyer, you’re not represented,” Dreyer said. “What we’re being pushed to is the acceptance of a system where people won’t have lawyers and that’s OK. And we shouldn’t be having that.”

Getting the data

Dreyer now wants to shift his focus to putting hard numbers to the debate over civil right to counsel. Currently, the arguments are all theoretical since no tangible, practical calculation exists.

Indeed, he noted, the idea that we cannot have due process in some situations without lawyers is not based on any hard data or empirical evidence.

Dreyer plans to compare the experiences and outcomes between those who are and are not represented by an attorney. He hopes to reach beyond Indiana and include other jurisdictions in the United States and, perhaps, abroad.

His tentative hypothesis reflects his concerns over fairness: “The data will show that a lack of access to advice and representation almost always, if not always, is a significant and substantial impediment,” he said. “It affects results. It affects justice. It affects the quality of people’s lives who are involved in the system.”

Mandatory access

Dreyer’s call for a civil right to counsel is an extension of his earlier push to change the legal profession’s thinking about pro bono. In his 2009 paper, “Culture, Structure, and Pro Bono Practice,” Dreyer advocated for the profession to help indigent clients by moving away from primarily relying on the attorneys’ personal preference to do pro bono and instead mandate lawyers to provide access to the courts, although he left open what that exactly means for attorneys.

Coining the term “mandatory access” to replace the “outdated ‘pro bono’ professional idea,” the Marion County judge wrote in 2009, “Instead of considering only what is preferred by the profession, we must focus on what is necessary to maintain the system.”

Four years later, Dreyer sees a real chance for creativity and ingenuity in determining how to provide civil litigants access. He is welcoming to all approaches that achieve that goal.

Some of the new ideas for providing civil representation, he said, might involve bolstering financial resources, possibly through higher filing fees. Another possibility is that money could be shifted within pro bono programs to pay attorneys, or a voucher system could be created where the indigent clients could pay with a voucher, which the lawyers could then cash.

Dreyer also suggested that resources could be diverted from poor relief into legal services. This, in turn, might eventually alleviate some of the need for government assistance like food stamps and unemployment benefits because the legal issue, which is often at the root of the problem, is resolved.

In the courtroom

Dreyer has regular interaction with pro se litigants in court. Some are individuals who prefer to represent themselves, but most are people who appear without a lawyer because they cannot afford one.

He leads the process, talking to the pro se litigants, explaining what will happen during the hearing, and asking for the evidence to be presented. If the opposing parties start arguing with each other, Dreyer will take over questioning the witnesses on the stand.

Unlike other judges, Dreyer said he does not hate having self-represented individuals in court, but he acknowledged the system works much better when attorneys handle the cases. Attorneys and judges can talk to each other in legal terms where sometimes with pro se litigants, judges will struggle to understand their argument.

Dreyer sees the reasons for not providing civil counsel as centering around the practical, political and financial rather than constitutional concerns. Overcoming those obstacles, he concedes, will take time.

“We didn’t get here overnight so it can’t be changed overnight,” Dreyer said. “But obviously what we’ve done hasn’t worked as well as it should and it has to be changed.”•


  • UGHH
  • working lawyers would bear the brunt
    Lofty pinciples! Without any real plan to implement. Its not enough that every dollar earned by working lawyers get chewed up by taxes including programs for the benefit of the poor (and their advocates and administrators). Now we have to expand free legal help which would dramatically expand the demand for "mandatory pro bono." Golf course lawyers sitting high on the hog in big law may applaud such lofty notions but the other 90% of lawyers out here who dont have time for golf, don't relish the idea of the increasing demands put on us by our capos. A wise old lawyer from down South told me once, "America-- the very rich and the poor against the middle." A middle that keeps getting narrower and narrower every year.
  • Access to Courts, Not Access to Expert
    Just because people are guaranteed access to the courts does not mean they are guaranteed access to an expert to assist them (i.e. an attorney). I have access to the roads, but I do not have the means to hire a professional driver to take me wherever I want to go. Perhaps it is time to force limo drivers to provide their services for free. It costs money, a lot of money, to become an attorney. Why shouldn't it cost money to hire one?

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  1. This new language about a warning has not been discussed at previous meetings. It's not available online. Since it must be made public knowledge before the vote, does anyone know exactly what it says? Further, this proposal was held up for 5 weeks because members Carol and Lucy insisted that all terms used be defined. So now, definitions are unnecessary and have not been inserted? Beyond these requirements, what is the logic behind giving one free pass to discriminators? Is that how laws work - break it once and that's ok? Just don't do it again? Three members of Carmel's council have done just about everything they can think of to prohibit an anti-discrimination ordinance in Carmel, much to Brainard's consternation, I'm told. These three 'want to be so careful' that they have failed to do what at least 13 other communities, including Martinsville, have already done. It's not being careful. It's standing in the way of what 60% of Carmel residents want. It's hurting CArmel in thT businesses have refused to locate because the council has not gotten with the program. And now they want to give discriminatory one free shot to do so. Unacceptable. Once three members leave the council because they lost their races, the Carmel council will have unanimous approval of the ordinance as originally drafted, not with a one free shot to discriminate freebie. That happens in January 2016. Why give a freebie when all we have to do is wait 3 months and get an ordinance with teeth from Day 1? If nothing else, can you please get s copy from Carmel and post it so we can see what else has changed in the proposal?

  2. Here is an interesting 2012 law review article for any who wish to dive deeper into this subject matter: Excerpt: "Judicial interpretation of the ADA has extended public entity liability to licensing agencies in the licensure and certification of attorneys.49 State bar examiners have the authority to conduct fitness investigations for the purpose of determining whether an applicant is a direct threat to the public.50 A “direct threat” is defined as “a significant risk to the health or safety of others that cannot be eliminated by a modification of policies, practices or procedures, or by the provision of auxiliary aids or services as provided by § 35.139.”51 However, bar examiners may not utilize generalizations or stereotypes about the applicant’s disability in concluding that an applicant is a direct threat.52"

  3. We have been on the waiting list since 2009, i was notified almost 4 months ago that we were going to start receiving payments and we still have received nothing. Every time I call I'm told I just have to wait it's in the lawyers hands. Is everyone else still waiting?

  4. I hope you dont mind but to answer my question. What amendment does this case pretain to?

  5. Research by William J Federer Chief Justice John Marshall commented May 9, 1833, on the pamphlet The Relation of Christianity to Civil Government in the United States written by Rev. Jasper Adams, President of the College of Charleston, South Carolina (The Papers of John Marshall, ed. Charles Hobson, Chapel Hill: Univ. of North Carolina Press, 2006, p, 278): "Reverend Sir, I am much indebted to you for the copy of your valuable sermon on the relation of Christianity to civil government preached before the convention of the Protestant Episcopal Church in Charleston, on the 13th of February last. I have read it with great attention and advantage. The documents annexed to the sermon certainly go far in sustaining the proposition which it is your purpose to establish. One great object of the colonial charters was avowedly the propagation of the Christian faith. Means have been employed to accomplish this object, and those means have been used by government..." John Marshall continued: "No person, I believe, questions the importance of religion to the happiness of man even during his existence in this world. It has at all times employed his most serious meditation, and had a decided influence on his conduct. The American population is entirely Christian, and with us, Christianity and Religion are identified. It would be strange, indeed, if with such a people, our institutions did not presuppose Christianity, and did not often refer to it, and exhibit relations with it. Legislation on the subject is admitted to require great delicacy, because freedom of conscience and respect for our religion both claim our most serious regard. You have allowed their full influence to both. With very great respect, I am Sir, your Obedt., J. Marshall."