Letter to the editor: Posner’s pro se comments troubling

November 15, 2017

Richard A. Posner, a former 35-year member of the 7th Circuit Court of Appeals in Chicago, retired from the bench earlier than he had planned because of clashes with his fellow judges over the way the court treats litigants who represent themselves. Posner, 78, stated to the Chicago Daily Law Bulletin that he intended to stay on the court until he turned 80, but “difficulty” with his colleagues moved up that date. Posner said, “I was not getting along with the other judges because I was (and am) very concerned about how the court treats pro se litigants, who I believe deserve a better shake.”

In another interview, he said that he began looking more closely at pro se cases including one that involved an inmate who died after repeatedly falling from a top bunk even though a doctor had said a brain tumor required that he sleep in a bottom bunk. His request was allegedly ignored. Posner said he noticed that pro se cases tended to get very casual treatment by the staff attorneys who prepare a memo recommending disposition of the appeal. He said the recommendation goes to a panel of judges, and they usually “rubber stamp” the staff attorney’s memo, which is usually to dismiss the appeal. He said he was on the panel with two other judges and they agreed with the district judge and voted to dismiss, but he dissented. He said it was ridiculous to dismiss the family’s appeal as the guard and warden were aware of a serious danger as their own medical staff had told them. Posner went on to say, “I think I was just going along with the culture of the court. None of the judges paid any attention to the pro ses, and I just never woke up to it until I saw this case. … I gradually began to realize that this wasn’t right, what we were doing.”

If what Posner is saying is true, then we have a very serious problem in the 7th Circuit warranting the attention of the U.S. Department of Justice as these judges are violating the civil rights of the pro se litigants who are constitutionally entitled to their day in court. By law, 28 United States Code Section 453, every federal judge must take an oath affirming to “... administer justice without respect to persons, and do equal right to the poor and to the rich” and to “faithfully and impartially discharge and perform all the duties incumbent upon me as judge under the Constitution and laws of the United States. So help me God.”

If what Posner is saying is true, the judges are violating their oaths with systematic dismissals of pro se appeals for the sole reason that the litigants are representing themselves. This is a blatant form of discrimination that violates federal law as the Judiciary Act of 1789 states that “in all courts of the United States the parties may plead and manage their own causes personally … ”. Posner stated that one of the former staff attorneys that he talked to recently said that the staff attorneys in recommending dismissal of the pro se cases “are doing what the judges want.” This cannot be.

Posner was quoted in an interview as saying, “The basic thing is that most judges regard these people as kind of trash not worth the time of a federal judge.”

These are very strong statements from a 35-year member of the court and are clearly indicative of systematic civil rights violations by the judges of the 7th Circuit against the people. If true, these judges not only violated their sworn oaths but broke the law. The U.S. Department of Justice cannot look the other way and must investigate these judges. The law is the law.

Posner should be commended for bringing this very serious matter to the attention of the public.

— Brian Vukadinovich, Wheatfield