Last year, I represented myself in an age-discrimination lawsuit against my employer, a school district in Northern Indiana. Despite not having an attorney, I resisted pressure to settle and took my case all the way to a jury trial. In the end, I won a judgment for more than $200,000.
But in the course of my experience, it became very apparent that the deck was stacked against me just because I was proceeding pro se – that is, representing myself, without an attorney. It's hard enough for a layman to win in court as it is, but the apparent disdain and discrimination that courts and judges show toward pro se litigants make it that much harder.
I was fortunate. But unless there are reforms to protect pro se litigants with meritorious civil cases, others will suffer injustices for exercising their right under federal law to manage their own litigation.
The judge in my case offered an angry and dismissive "Here we go!" when I argued that he must liberally construe the allegations in my complaint, as the 1972 Supreme Court precedent Haines v. Kerner dictates. He also disregarded the court's own local rules by denying my right to conduct my own voir dire of the prospective jurors, simply because I was proceeding pro se. He berated me in open court for my refusal to retain an attorney, and condescendingly informed me that he didn't think I would prevail at the trial. At various points, including when he urged me to accept the defendant's settlement offer, I felt he was trying to intimidate me simply because I chose to represent myself.
The disdain by federal judges against pro se litigants is a serious problem in our country, which the Supreme Court and Congress should rectify. Perhaps some judges have seen too many frivolous pro se lawsuits for their liking. Surely many such lawsuits are not meritorious, and the majority are brought by prisoners. Perhaps this is why some judges read only as far as "pro se" before rolling their eyes.
But that shouldn't make a difference, as all cases are to be judged on their merits, not by the persons who bring them. By law, every federal judge must take an oath affirming to "administer justice without respect to person, 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."
The Judiciary Act of 1789, one of those laws, states that "in all courts of the United States, the parties may plead and manage their own causes personally." It follows that federal judges must respect the pro se litigants' right to represent themselves. Thus, the Supreme Court and Congress have means to remedy the problems with federal judges who disrespect and ignore the rights of pro se litigants.
Every Supreme Court Justice is in charge of a judicial circuit in the country. The justices and the Judicial Conference of the United States should make each federal judge understand that they are expected to treat pro se litigants with respect and without disdain. They should make clear that judicial councils will take complaints seriously if judges behave in a prejudicial manner toward litigants who represent themselves.
Congress also has a role. In extreme cases it has the power to remove judges, of course. But short of that, it can at least underscore the seriousness of the rights it established for litigants in the Judiciary Act. Whether through binding or nonbinding language on the topic, Congress can make clear that complaints about violations of the rights of pro se litigants must be taken very seriously by judicial councils.
Courts are not supposed to be a playground for attorneys. They are the halls of justice for ordinary people to have their day in court and receive justice, no matter their social standing or profession. And yes, that includes litigants who choose to manage their own cases. It's the law.
Brian Vukadinovich is a retired teacher in Indiana.
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