The People's Court?
Detroit's 36th District Court
The first time I went to Detroit’s 36th District Court, I didn’t know the drill. Most people don’t know the drill the first time they go. A lawyer I’d met agreed to accompany me. He went in the side door, reserved for attorneys and court staff. I joined the long line at the main entrance, waiting to pass through the metal detectors and have my bag scanned. No cell phones, the guard told me. Put it in your car. I waved the lawyer back outside. He was due in court, and his car was blocks away. Give me the phone, he said. I’ll bring it in. I returned to the line. You can’t bring in that hair clip, the guard told me. Just throw it out, I said. I scooped my bag off the belt and joined the lawyer, who was standing where the entryway carpet meets the linoleum, near a line of people snaking through a rope maze, waiting to pay tickets. I was intimidated and upset, and I’d been at the 36th less than five minutes.
The lawyer and I rode the elevator up to the fourth floor, where he walked me to room 421. Room 421 is where people who are facing eviction, foreclosure, and other real-estate matters find out what courtroom to go to. They wait for their name to be called, and since there are a lot of cases, the wait can be long. Squeezed into the back corner was a small plastic table with four plastic chairs where children can play. On the wall, a sign, in large capital letters, admonished that NO STANDING is allowed. The six rows of black pleather chairs were all taken. Outside in the hallway, people sat on benches and the floor.
The 36th District Court occupies the Madison Center Building, which was built in the early 1980s in an architectural style that might be called Federal brutalist. A massive cement box that takes up a city block, it is 6 stories high and contains 32 courtrooms. All the floors look the same. No signs tell you where to go or how to figure out where to go. The hallways are long and have dirty beige walls, the only light coming from the smudged windows at either end. I escaped room 421, went into the bathroom, shut myself into one of the two cubicles with a lock, which barely held the beaten metal door closed, and took some deep breaths. I splashed some water on my face and realized there were no paper towels, just a hand dryer that barely functioned. I felt overdressed in a button-down shirt, and out of place, and I was.
The 31 judges elected to the bench at the 36th handle more than half a million cases a year, in a city with a population of about 700,000 people. They hear the most basic criminal and civil cases for Wayne County: traffic violations, misdemeanors, landlord-tenant issues, land-contract suits, and small claims. It’s one of the busiest courts in the country, and as the court’s website notes, it’s where most citizens of Detroit meet the justice system for the first time. The website also says the 36th is called the People’s Court. I’ve never heard anyone call it that. I’ve never heard anyone say anything good about the place. Everyone I’ve ever talked to in Detroit hates going to the 36th District. People laugh when I say I go there voluntarily. It baffles them.
I had come to observe the civil side. At the time of my first visit, in the summer of 2009, one out of every nine housing units in Detroit was in foreclosure, and the unemployment rate was more than 18 percent. The numbers were so huge that they lent themselves to broad generalizations and sweeping statements that eclipsed the people whose lives and neighborhoods had been turned upside down. It’s one thing to think about foreclosures or evictions in the abstract. It’s something altogether different to see one person lose her one home and then to see it over and over and over.
Detroit’s municipal meltdown may be extreme, but the lopsided justice of the 36th is the national norm. We have an adversarial system of justice in America, yet in the nation’s civil courts, we are one adversary short.In almost every case I witnessed in the four years I attended the 36th, the defendant stood alone in front of the judge. In a criminal case, if you can’t afford an attorney, the courts are required to provide you with one. In civil cases, litigants who can’t pay for a lawyer are on their own. In theory, they can turn to a legal-aid office, but those groups have never been able to keep up with demand. There are 134 federally funded legal-services groups around the country, and they turn away approximately one person for every one they can help.
“The current system is nonfunctional for all its participants. It’s not functioning for courts, for litigants, for the profession, for legal aid,” says Richard Zorza, a lawyer who for many years coordinated the Self Represented Litigation Network. “The system is built on the assumption that everyone has a lawyer and then fails to give it to them. It’s completely illogical.”
I have a clear memory of one case from three or four years ago, which involved a woman who had been robbed and beaten in the middle of the day in a parking lot outside a grocery store on Woodward Avenue, Detroit’s main thoroughfare. She had lost her job while she was in the hospital and fell behind on the rent. The landlord was just someone who owned another house or two besides his own, not a big real-estate company that could float someone for a while, not that it would be inclined to. Neither had a lawyer. She wound up being evicted. The woman stands out in my mind because she had such a cascade of problems. It’s rotten luck to have your whole life unraveled by a trip to the grocery store one summer afternoon. Sob stories are common at the 36th District, although I’ve only ever seen one person weep.
Like a casino, courtrooms at the 36th have no windows and no visible clocks, so it’s easy to lose track of time. When waiting for a case to start, no one is allowed to talk. The only sound in a courtroom is the hum of the ventilation system. It feels as if everyone in the room is holding their breath.
Sketching the Court
Illustrator Victor Juhasz shares his story of visiting Detroit's 36th District Court on assignment for the Prospect. The captions are adapted from a longer piece he wrote on the trip over at his website.Read the original here.
The woman sitting in front of me in courtroom 333 was jiggling her foot, which was causing her loose bun and gold earrings to shake. She was still wearing her brown-and-black herringbone coat. Litigants are uneasy in the courthouse, plaintiffs and defendants alike. They fidget. They keep their coats on. They clutch their sheaves of paper—rent receipts and summonses, leases and bills. You can always tell the lawyers, because they claim the front row, take off their jackets, lay out their files. It’s not just their ease with the language and the process that sets them apart. They dominate the space.
Room 333 has an industrial pink color scheme: pinkish-brown linoleum, pinkish-brown carpet. Mirroring all the courtrooms at the 36th, its walls angle toward the judge, narrowing to a point behind the dais. Judge Donna Robinson Milhouse, like most of the court’s judges, and most of the litigants, is African American. She has close-cropped hair and a penchant for bold earrings, one of the few opportunities for self-expression above a robe.
Kristen Buchanan stood before Judge Milhouse without an attorney, as did her landlord, James Carter. Heavy-set, with light brown skin, Buchanan was in her mid-twenties. She had been in court before, she reminded the judge, when she was late on the rent and pregnant. The judge had referred her to some agencies for help, she said, but she was still behind, and Carter wanted her out of her apartment.
“I pick up my Section 8 voucher on Friday,” Buchanan said, her voice cracking. “I just need a little more time.” Milhouse asked Carter if he could be flexible on the move-out date, as she usually does. He shook his head, as landlords usually do. Many landlords in Detroit are individuals with rental property, and they have mortgages and taxes and water bills to pay, and they can’t pay them without the rent. Buchanan’s rent was $400 a month.
By statute, Buchanan had ten days to move, which gave her until the 28th of January. Milhouse suggested she take the new paperwork back to the agencies and show them that they need to act a little more speedily.
“I took the judgment to the agency, and they’re like, ‘You and about ten other people,’” Buchanan said.
“You will not be thrown out on the 28th. That’s all I can tell you,” Milhouse said. What she didn’t say is that on the 29th, Carter could file for eviction, and things could move quickly after that.
Like Buchanan, most of the people facing eviction at the 36th have a big strike against them: They haven’t paid their rent. The debts are usually small—$400 back rent here, $1,000 there. They’re so small that it’s sometimes hard to fathom the tiny distance between crisis and stability. But if you can’t come up with it, $400 might as well be $400,000. You’re on the street either way.
Charlene Snow is an attorney who spends a lot of time at the 36th District, mostly fighting evictions. She says people representing themselves have three challenges. First, they don’t understand their rights. Second, “if they understand them, they don’t bring the proper documents into court to prove what they’re trying to say.” And, third, when they try to explain their situation, “they’re nervous, they’re not real articulate, they ramble and get the judge aggravated.”
A lawyer can bring up issues that tenants don’t think to raise or don’t know how to raise. A lack of heat, electricity, or running water—these are all valid reasons to withhold rent. They can also affect an eviction order, either stopping it or lowering the amount owed. Even if there are no maintenance problems, a lawyer can press for a solution that doesn’t result in a judgment against the defendant, which can render a person ineligible for subsidized housing or Section 8 vouchers down the line. I once saw Snow representing a client in an eviction case, and while the young woman did have to move, Snow made sure the agreement was a voluntary termination of tenancy rather than a nonpayment of rent, the kind of maneuver that can keep options open.
If court hasn’t started yet, Snow blasts through the courtroom doors and out into the hallway, barking out the names of her clients, propelling them onto a bench for some last-minute strategy. Her short black hair swings as she marches ahead of them, not looking back to make sure they’re following, already pulling files from the stack under her arm. That stack will have been plucked early that morning from the dozens in her crowded office at the United Community Housing Coalition, one of the few groups in Detroit that provides free counsel to people facing eviction and other problems in the civil courts.
Snow is one of three lawyers at the coalition. She often finds ways to squeeze some general legal advice into her arguments. When she’s in front of the judge, she’ll explain, loudly and in great detail, why the maintenance problems in her client’s apartment entitled her to a reduction in rent or why the tenant in a foreclosed house is allowed 90 days to move out, just in case someone else in the courtroom might pick up what she’s saying. With so many clients of her own, that’s often the best she can do.
Sometimes she does more. The day I met Snow, an older black man in a suit sat in the courtroom I had been visiting. Things were winding down, and I was talking in the hallway to Debra Miller, a local tenant activist. She’d been in the courtroom to provide moral support for a friend who was about to get evicted. I’m the bedbug lady, she told me. She’d been raising hell about the bedbugs in Section 8 housing, she said, and there was this great lawyer who’d been helping her. She’s here. You should talk to her. Miller waylaid Snow and demanded that she talk to me but first demanded that she go talk to the man in the suit, who had been waiting all morning for his case to be called. It was coming up on 11:30, and court was close to adjourning. Snow stuck her head in and then came back into the hallway. That guy in the suit? Isn’t he a lawyer? I had made the same assumption. Defendants almost never wear suits. No, he’s a tenant, the bedbug lady said. He’s here on an eviction case. Huh, Snow said and went in to talk to him to see what she could work out.
Snow says that some of the security guards or court clerks will call her office if they see an old lady or someone clearly out of it getting trampled by an opposing attorney. They ask, Snow says, if we have anyone in the building who can swing by the courtroom to see if they can help out. She’s grateful that the guards and clerks call but also annoyed, because none of the lawyers has any minutes to spare and because it’s not really justice if you only get a lawyer because you remind a security guard of his grandma. Unsympathetic cases deserve lawyers too, Snow says.
Waiting is how people spend most of their time at the court. Waiting for paperwork to be sent up, for files to be found, for attorneys to appear. Last year, business in a handful of courtrooms was delayed because several stenographers, who hadn’t been paid in weeks, stopped showing up. The judges had to wait for a stenographer to finish in another court. The court couldn’t even adjourn, because no one could make a record of the adjournment.
When I first started coming to the 36th, I would sit in a courtroom through hours of traffic tickets because I didn’t want to disrupt the proceedings by leaving. Now, I just leave. The whole experience of court feels like one giant disruption, and no one looks twice if you add a little to the chaos. No one looks at you at all.
The 36th has the same taut feeling I’ve experienced in prisons or welfare offices: a mix of boredom, anxiety, anger, power, powerlessness, and indifference. It’s as if all the exhalations and sighs of all the litigants who have passed through the building are trapped in the cinderblock halls.
The ban on cell phones is one of the most persistent gripes about the court, which is saying something. What you can’t bring in is a camera, but since most phones have cameras, you’re functionally prohibited from bringing in a phone. This leads to regular drama at the metal detectors in the entrance and a side hustle for the candy vendor outside the court, who will stash a phone in his cart for a $5 fee.
Of course, you can just sneak in your phone. One morning last summer, the woman next to me pulled her iPhone out of her cleavage while we waited in the hallway for the judge to start the session. I asked if they had changed the rules, and she said no. “But I have to call for a ride after,” she said, shrugging. She’d just gotten back to court after rushing home to change her clothes, because earlier that morning a judge had sent someone home for wearing too short a skirt.
Every courtroom door has a long list of prohibited attire. No shorts. No jogging suits, biker pants, muscle shirts, overalls, or Levis. No sandals, thongs, or flip-flops. No “outer garments made of spandex/lycra material,” a prohibition that presumably allows for stretchy underwear. No “see-through clothing of any kind.” There is no information on what to expect in the proceeding or where to get help if you’re confused. There’s just information on what not to wear.
During the summer, people often show up dressed in flip-flops and spandex or in sleeveless shirts and jeans. Which suggests a population not accustomed to the formalities and expectations of the system. The judges at the 36th District know this, of course. You see a lot of sandals and a fair bit of Lycra, and judges generally let it slide.
It’s a very fine line that we walk in being impartial,” says Kenneth King, who until recently was chief judge at the 36th District. “Because you don’t want to find yourself representing the defendant. But I want to also make sure that justice is done, that no one is taken advantage of just because they don’t have legal counsel.” Judges can explain procedure to litigants—that landlords have to come back to file for eviction after getting a judgment or that withheld rent must go into escrow. What judges can’t do is give legal advice from the bench, no matter how perplexed someone might be.
Many people at the 36th ask court staff for legal help. But the clerks and the tellers are also prohibited from giving advice, which they make clear, emphatically and frequently. Above the teller windows on the first floor, where people come to file forms and pay fees, signs announce that “court employees cannot give legal advice or prepare documents.” In room 421, the notice is capitalized and underlined. This isn’t because the staffers are jerks. It’s because giving advice would constitute unauthorized practice of the law, which is illegal. They can provide legal definitions but not legal interpretation—another fine line, at least to bewildered people who pepper staff with questions they’re not authorized to answer.
Judge Katherine Hansen has been on the bench at the 36th since 2004 and often finds herself explaining basic steps. She warns people that they may receive something in the mail about their case. “If you do,” she tells them, “read it carefully.” If you don’t respond, she warns, there may be consequences. If you answer, she says, tell the truth, in writing.
Hansen has pale white skin and auburn hair to her shoulders, a combination that gives her a delicate, almost Victorian air, particularly when her complexion is set off by her black robe. But Hansen, who began her legal career with the United Auto Workers, has a sharp tongue and a brisk manner. The first morning I met her, a tenant with a rent dispute sighed when Hansen asked her to go out into the hallway and talk to the landlord. I heard that, Hansen snapped.
The two women left the courtroom, turned around, and came back in less than a minute. The case involved a convoluted story about unpaid rent in the amount of $500 a month and a $30 late fee, and the landlord spreading rumors, and the tenant’s mother being sick, and her brother having a kidney problem. Hansen listened to the two women vent and accuse and loop around to all kinds of digressions, including trips to Africa, a sick daughter weighing 400 pounds, and the regularity of the landlord’s church attendance. After which Hansen ruled in favor of the landlord and told the tenant to pay back rent of $1,800 plus $69.50 in court fees within ten days.
There’s a way you do everything, the tenant shouted. She started to huff out of the room and turned back to yell. Hansen’s patience broke like a storm. I’m one of 31 judges on this bench, she said. Last time I knew, I’m the only one who stops at the beginning and tells people that you have a right—a right, she reiterated—to have an attorney. Frankly, because I believe that a right without an opportunity to access it is meaningless, I gave you the chance to adjourn and go get one. I’m the only one in this building who has a list of where you can get free lawyers, and I hand it out like candy. She had given the two women the opportunity to adjourn at the outset, but the tenant had demanded they settle matters today. That the tenant was unhappy with the outcome, and probably with many other parts of her day, too, was not something under Hansen’s purview.
Some of the lawyers I know in Detroit say that a judge can do a bit more—lose a file for a while to give someone a smidge more time to move out, say. But even a sympathetic judge can’t erase rent due or plunk money into an empty bank account. Or turn back decades of industrial flight and political corruption and bring back the stability that built the six-lane streets and the solid brick homes and Motown. They’re gone, and that’s something no one at the 36th District can change.
A few years ago, I saw a man try to fight a debt-collection company that was garnishing his wages. He was an elderly African American, and he came to court wearing a worn uniform from a maintenance company. He didn’t have a lawyer. He had managed to file forms contesting the garnishment. In court, he said he had never incurred the debt and, in fact, had no idea what the debt was, so he didn’t owe the money. The judge told him that in order to make that argument, he would have had to contest the underlying debt, not the garnishment itself. The judge didn’t tell him how to do that, though. She didn’t make any effort to get to the truth of the matter, moving forward with the case despite the possibility that the collections agency had the wrong man. While the judge was talking, the defendant kept muttering under his breath. I was in the second row, close enough to hear him, and he was saying, “I’m so lost. I’m so lost.”
Debt has become a tradable asset, and investors typically pick up old debts for pennies on the dollar, which are then handed over to collections agencies and their lawyers. It’s common for the paper trail to break down as the debt changes hands. Attempts to collect on debts that are expired, discharged, or erroneous are common. “When accounts are transferred to debt collectors, the accompanying information often is so deficient that the collectors seek payment from the wrong consumer or demand the wrong amount from the correct consumer,” according to a 2009 report from the Federal Trade Commission. Missing documents can be a major obstacle for consumers trying to fight a collections suit. For people representing themselves, that obstacle is all but insurmountable.
At the 36th District, most people being sued by a debt collector represent themselves. The collections agencies or debt buyers always have lawyers. These lawyers usually handle nothing but collections cases, and they do them day in and day out. I suspect they could do them in their sleep, and some early mornings it seems as if they are. Invariably, the defendants are confused about the debt, asserting that they paid some or all of it or that they have no idea what the debt is for. I saw a tiny African American woman in her early thirties insist she had never received notice of the debt until the collections agency had won a default judgment against her, because she didn’t show up in court. The paperwork from the process server, asserting she had been notified of the suit, said he had served a tall black man.
I met Robert Armstrong last winter, when his case was the first of a long day. Tall, with light brown skin and a mustache, in late middle age, he was being sued by Palisades Acquisition, which was seeking an order authorizing the garnishment of his tax return. Armstrong did not have a lawyer. He told the judge that he had bought a $300 prepaid credit card from a company called Centurion maybe five or seven years ago. The card now had a balance of $1,183, but he wasn’t sure how. “It’s gone up because it’s seven or eight years old,” the attorney for Palisades told the judge. The original amount owed was $866.93, assessed in 2005, the judge said, consulting some papers in front of her. None of those figures made sense, and no one explained them to Armstrong. He said that the card took $150 in fees off the top, so he only had $150 to spend when he got it. And anyway, he said, he paid off whatever he owed back in the day.
“Really, you’re challenging the underlying account, and we’re way past that stage,” Judge Donna Robinson Milhouse interrupted. She explained that until he paid the original judgment from 2005, Palisades could attempt to collect. The lawyer for Palisades didn’t seem to know much about the fees or how the debt swelled, not that anyone was pressing him for details. Palisades is a debt buyer and probably picked up the debt from Centurion.
“We really don’t have any interest in collecting money that’s not properly owed,” the lawyer for Palisades said. He suggested that Armstrong find proof of payment. Of course, if the debt was seven years old, as Armstrong claimed, the chances he had the receipt kicking around were slim. The judge suggested he seek legal counsel and denied his objection. If he receives a state tax refund, she explained, Palisades will be able to take it.
“I don’t even know why I came down here,” Armstrong told me in the hallway. “It’s just a waste of time.” He’s living on a fixed income, he said. I asked if he thought about getting a lawyer. He couldn’t afford to hire someone, he said, and didn’t think anyone would help him, and, no, he hadn’t heard of legal aid. I mentioned a new self-help center for people without lawyers at the nearby family court. He said he’d check it out. “I don’t have anything to lose.”
The civil courts are in crisis in Detroit and across the country. There’s no other word for it: Civil courts have inadequate funding, not enough lawyers, and far too many litigants. But there should be another word, because “crisis” means a sudden, shocking eruption of disaster. The civil courts are, and have been, in a stagnant state of failure for decades. It’s bad in Detroit, but it’s bad everywhere.
Which is not to say that Detroit’s financial travails aren’t having an impact at the 36th District. This spring, Governor Rick Snyder appointed an emergency manager to rein in the city’s spending, address its $18.5 billion in long-term debt, and negotiate with its many creditors, including retired city workers and big banks.
The 36th District Court, it turned out, was also in financial trouble. A report commissioned by the State Court Administrative Office in April found that the court “appears to be overstaffed and not as efficient as other comparable court systems.” People can’t pay tickets electronically, the report went on. Many courtrooms lacked even computers for court clerks. The long lines of people waiting to pay tickets or figure out what court to go to are the “antithesis of customer service.” The report noted that since the court is near both Comerica Park and Ford Field, it “schedules lightly on ‘game days’; due to parking problems for litigants and lawyers” and generally winds down early on Fridays. This is a polite version of what I’ve observed, which is that court starts late, ends early, and is a ghost town by midafternoon.
Most damning, the court was more than $4.5 million over budget for the year. Chief Judge King had requested $36 million for court operations. When the city council allocated $31 million, he spent the amount he had sought rather than the amount he was given. “Continual financial problems at the District Court are commonplace,” the report asserted, adding that in many jurisdictions, over--expenditures are against the law. A special administrator, Judge Michael Talbot, was appointed to cut the court’s expenses.
“Courageous leadership” would be required, the report concluded, “to implement the necessary remedies and restructuring that will revamp the Court for a new, more austere normal.” In case anyone wasn’t clear what that meant, “staff reductions will be unavoidable,” and indeed, 80 staffers were laid off in July, including court clerks and probation officers. In July, Chief Judge King was removed from his position, although he remains a judge at the court.
The state court report does not mention, or appear to even consider, the effect of a persistent, grinding economic depression on the people who use the 36th District Court. There is only brief allusion to the hundreds of thousands of people forced to represent themselves at the court, no mention of how their volume affects the efficiency of operations, and no reference to how population loss and job loss and foreclosures and abandoned homes lead not just to city budget shortfalls but to evictions and tax liens and bounced checks and to more court cases that the 36th District can’t handle.
In July, less than two months after the report was released, Detroit declared bankruptcy, allowing the city to void its obligations to pensioners and lenders alike. It was the largest municipal bankruptcy in U.S. history.
One morning a few years back, when I was still new and more sensitive, I was sitting on one of the blond wooden benches that line the halls. My head swimming, I started talking to a young man pacing the linoleum floor. He was being sued by State Farm Insurance, he said. State Farm had paid for his best friend’s funeral, after the friend died in a drunk-driving accident. The young man was the one behind the wheel. He had spent time in prison, even though, he said, his friend’s mom begged the judge not to take him away too—she’d just lost her son and the two were like brothers from when they were small. Now, he said, the insurance company was suing him to get back the money it had paid for the funeral, something about how it only covered the costs if there was no fault involved. He wasn’t quite sure.
I asked him his name, and when he told me, I said, you need to go check in with the clerk. They were calling your name. I think they gave State Farm a default judgment against you. A what, he said? That means State Farm wins the case because you weren’t there, I said. He looked panicked. He’d taken the morning off from his construction job, an hour outside of town, he said, and when he got to court the clerk told him to wait in the hall because he was wearing a shirt with the sleeves ripped off, which wasn’t appropriate attire. It was his get-up for the job site, he said. He had to go straight to work when he was done. He had no lawyer, no money to pay one, no one to tell him what to wear or how to act, no one in a suit who could sit in the courtroom while he waited outside. Sitting in the hall may have cost him a couple of thousand dollars. He sighed and went back into the courtroom to see what he could sort out. I think about him a lot. He seemed like a gentle kid, caught up in a situation that was of his own making but also made by the momentum of that one bad choice, or bad day, or bit of bad luck. You see a lot of that at the 36th District.
There are no easy answers for the economic problems of Detroit. There are, however, some ways to ease the problems of the civil courts in Detroit and elsewhere.
One strategy is to encourage judges to offer more help to litigants without lawyers. The Conference of Chief Justices and the Conference of State Court Administrators, two national groups, recently proposed a revision to the model code of judicial conduct, which lays out how judges should behave on the bench. The change encourages judges to “make reasonable efforts” to “facilitate the ability of all litigants, including self-represented litigants, to be fairly heard.” This official encouragement might nudge judges who feel squeamish about going too far in supporting people who represent themselves. It might also give comfort to the many judges at the 36th who already come close to the line, if not cross over it.
Another approach is to create resources for people without lawyers, from websites to mobile tools to self-help centers. Many courts across the country have such on-site centers, where people can receive guidance and advice, but the 36th District does not. The court provides free legal help twice a year. When the state built a self-help center in 2012, it was placed at the family court blocks away. Michigan does have a new website aimed at people without lawyers, where guided interviews produce forms they can file in court. The site serviced 200,000 people in its first year, and it works on smartphones. But, of course, this won’t help people at the 36th, since their phones are at home or in their cars or with the candy man.
Some states are encouraging lawyers to help clients with just one aspect of a case, rather than handling the whole suit. This is particularly useful in areas like foreclosure law, where a case can drag on for months or years, sucking up either the cash of defendants who can afford a lawyer or the time of legal-aid attorneys. In Michigan, the law covering so-called limited scope representation is ambiguous, and lawyers are loath to take on just one piece of a case. The state’s self-help task force is working on clarifying those regulations, says Linda Rexer, executive director of the Michigan State Bar Foundation and co-chair of the task force. Still, the cost of hiring an attorney—often $200 an hour or more—for one slice of a problem is prohibitive for most litigants.
The other idea is to allow non-lawyers to practice law. This is controversial for several reasons. Lawyers, who have spent a lot of time and money becoming licensed, are generally not thrilled about having just anyone enter their profession. Also, they have legitimate concerns about the quality of assistance non-lawyers would provide. Washington last year became the first state to experiment with creating legal technicians, who will be trained to help people file forms and prepare for hearings, although they won’t be allowed to represent them in court.
All these reforms, though, only go so far. The big problems in the civil courts will continue to be big, because civil court is where the problems of income inequality and unaffordable housing and low wages and unemployment and poor education play out. The deck is always going to be stacked against the people barely clinging to their homes or their jobs or their bank accounts, even if those people have lawyers.
One day, a year ago, I saw Linda Hamilton defend herself in court. Compact and soft--spoken, she seemed both determined and hesitant to explain her situation. She lived in an apartment, she told the judge, and a social--service agency, POWER Inc., helped pay her rent. The problem was that the agency had accidentally paid the wrong landlord, and Hamilton now faced eviction. The lawyer for her landlord admitted that Hamilton “is blameless in this,” but still the rent was due.
Hamilton had difficulty advancing an argument on her own behalf. Judge Milhouse coaxed facts out of both sides, trying to get a handle on who owed what to whom and what, besides eviction, was possible. To figure out where the rent money had gone, Milhouse gave the landlord’s lawyer permission for discovery—“that means to try to get information,” she explained to Hamilton. In the meantime, Milhouse adjourned the case for three weeks.
Hamilton was thankful for the reprieve, but she wasn’t sure what would be different when court reconvened. “I can’t afford a lawyer,” she told me. Besides, Hamilton said, her apartment was infested with bedbugs, a common problem in Detroit. She was spending money she didn’t have on medicine to treat her bites, and moving costs money, too. “I’m just stuck between a rock and a hard place right now,” she said.
I spoke to her a few weeks after her court date, and she had managed to avoid eviction. Her landlord had cleared matters up with the social-service agency, so she could stay. Things couldn’t have gone better. But she was moving out anyway. She had to escape the bedbugs. She told me she wasn’t sure where she’d end up.
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