Turner v. Rogers and the Right of Meaningful Access to the Courts
19 Pages Posted: 8 Feb 2012 Last revised: 24 Feb 2013
Date Written: February 6, 2012
The article examines the implications of last term's Supreme Court ruling in Turner v. Rogers for the development of meaningful access to the courts jurisprudence. In Turner, the Supreme Court held that for a litigant to have meaningful access he must be able to identify the central issues in the case and present evidence and arguments regarding those issues. In so holding, the Court implicitly rejected the definition of meaningful access used by the Court in its 1996 opinion Lewis v. Casey, which encompassed only the ability to present grievances to the Court, and embraced a broader definition from its 1977 opinion in Bounds v. Smith: that litigants must be able to engage in “an adversary presentation.” At the same time, the Court’s application of its meaningful access standard threatens to rob that standard of any real meaning. The Court adopted a suggestion by a nonparty, presented for the first and only time in a Supreme Court amicus brief, that civil contempt defendants can obtain meaningful access to the courts if they are provided with minimal assistance. The Court's embrace of extra-record information resembles the Court’s analyses of the abilities of pro se litigants in two other cases, Lassiter v. Department of Social Services and Walters v. National Association of Radiation Survivors, which likewise rely on the Justices’ intuitions regarding the abilities of pro se litigants, even in the face of evidence to the contrary. The article concludes that the only way to make the meaningful access standard meaningful is for the courts to rely on empirical evidence regarding the capabilities of pro se litigants.
Keywords: courts, pro se, access to justice, Supreme Court
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