Southern Indiana District Court serves breakfast thanks to pro bono attorneys

Reading the book “Just Mercy,” a true story about a lawyer’s fight to free a wrongly convicted man from death row, inspired Indianapolis attorney Amber Boyd to accept a prisoner litigation case the next time the Southern Indiana District Court asked for volunteers.

Boyd, a labor and employment solo practitioner, had never represented an incarcerated individual. She had never been in a prison, never been through the multi-step process required to just call her client on the phone, and never realized the issues people behind bars face. The experience has been new and daunting, and she is having to spend a lot of time in the office, but she is certain she will volunteer again.

Although she remains “right in the thick” of the case, Boyd and numerous other lawyers who volunteered to handle pro se cases last year took the time Thursday to attend a special thank you event hosted by the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Indiana. The judges and staff attorneys offered a spread of sweet rolls, fruit, meat and vegetable frittatas, coffee and orange juice as a way of showing their appreciation to the lawyers who volunteer to help unrepresented litigants navigate the federal judicial process.

“On behalf of the court, I want to express our gratitude and acknowledge your commitment to pro bono service,” Chief Judge Jane Magnus-Stinson told the attorneys at the seventh annual Volunteer Appreciation Breakfast. “I know that frittatas and fruit does not come close to compensating you for the time, the effort and the energy you have put into the cases, but we are super grateful.”

The court, already one of the busiest in the United States, continues to see the number of pro bono cases increase every year, Magnus-Stinson said. Driving much of the increase is the rise in complaints filed by inmates in Indiana’s state prisons as well as the federal prison in Terre Haute. Indeed, the court’s staff attorneys’ office, which handles only prisoner cases, has grown from three lawyers in 1998 to 13 today.

For the calendar year 2019, the Southern Indiana District Court enlisted 119 attorney volunteers who made 138 appearances.

Jason Cleveland, a labor and employment attorney with Cleveland Lehner Cassidy in Indianapolis, was among the lawyers who enjoyed the morning meal. Most recently he volunteered to help two inmates — one claimed he had been unfairly dismissed from his job in the prison because he has a disability and the other asserted he did not receive proper medical care — through the settlement proceedings in their separate cases.

Even though the cases were a little afield from his normal practice area, Cleveland said he was comfortable volunteering because he often practices in federal court and is familiar with the procedures and the judges. Moreover, he was glad to be able to use his legal acumen to assist not only the court but also the unrepresented litigants who are facing difficult odds.

“I think it’s helpful to (the prisoner litigants) to know they’ve got a competent attorney to look at their cases and help guide them through that because a lot of time, they don’t have anyone else at all,” Cleveland said.

Judge James Sweeney II said the help from the volunteers helps the court meet the challenge posed by unrepresented parties. In such cases, he said, the courts have the burden of having to explain and educate the pro se litigants, who typically do not fully understand the rules and procedures, in order to ensure the process is fair.

“The attorneys who volunteer their valuable time for this are immeasurable and invaluable to the court,” Sweeney said.

Boyd said she has learned a great deal by volunteering. In helping with the prisoner rights case that involves food, she has become well acquainted with what inmates are eating, the nutritional value of the food on their plates and how that impacts their physical and emotional health.

As for how her experience compares to what she read in the book, Boyd highlighted the human element.

“One thing that shines through is how grateful the client is,” she said. “The client is just so grateful to be heard, to be listened to, and that’s something you don’t always get with your regular clients.”

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