Mapping the Civil Justice Gap in Federal Court
56 Pages Posted: 28 Sep 2021 Last revised: 15 Jun 2022
Date Written: July 28, 2021
Unrepresented litigants make up a sizable and normatively important chunk of civil litigation in the federal courts. Despite their importance, we still know little about who these pro se litigants are. Debates about pro se litigation take place without sufficient empirical information. To help fill some of the gaps in our understanding of pro se litigants, this Article takes a new approach by mapping where pro se litigants live.
Using a massive data set of 2.5 million federal dockets from a ten-year period, we obtained addresses of non-prisoner pro se litigants. We then geolocated these addresses and cross-referenced that information with demographic and economic Census data. This approach does not tell us anything about pro se litigants directly, but it allows us to describe where pro se litigants live and identify the communities they inhabit. While this method has limitations, it avoids many drawbacks of other methods.
We stress two main findings. First, most pro se litigants are profoundly ordinary. Typically, they do not hail from demographic or economic outliers. For example, most pro se litigants do not live in either the wealthiest or the poorest neighborhoods. Instead, their neighborhoods represent the middle class, with a few outliers that match the general population of outliers. Our findings present pro se litigants as a radically democratic element in federal courts. They, perhaps more than any other type of litigant, force federal courts into contact with a surprisingly representative sample of the general public. Second, there are two notable exceptions to this representativeness. Even after accounting for population and income, pro se litigants are more likely to reside in communities that are not homogenously white. And numerous rural communities feature fewer pro se litigants than expected. These findings deepen and complicate conventional narratives about pro se litigation and provide new impetus for doctrinal and policy debates about how the federal courts and Congress can and should respond to self-represented litigants.
Keywords: pro se, pro se litigation, federal courts, cartography, access to justice, civil procedure, empirical legal studies
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