The legal term “pro se” literally means “for himself” in the Latin. It signifies that a party in court is representing him or herself and has decided to forego an attorney. Despite the old adage, “a man who represents himself has a fool for a client,” this can sometimes be the right path to take if one has a competent knowledge of the applicable law, is not emotionally attached to the case at hand in a way that would obscure one’s vision during the various stages of the proceedings (becoming a “fool/client”), and if the financial commitment to hire counsel is outside of one’s reach or beyond one’s ability to stomach.
The United States Supreme Court has protected criminal defendants’ rights to forego counsel in criminal cases where the Sixth Amendment to the US Constitution would otherwise require that the Government pay for counsel for the defense. See Faretta v. California, 422 U.S. 806 (1975). That said, courts are usually extremely hesitant to permit a criminal defendant to forego counsel of any sort, and there are standard inquiries laid out to ensure that — if a criminal defendant is waiving their constitutionally-protected right to counsel — the waiver is knowing, intelligent, voluntary, and done with their “eyes open.” Faretta, at 835; see also Johnson v. Zerbst, 304 U.S. 458 (1938).
There are, of course, disadvantages to representing oneself in court, even with the best access to legal resources and all the knowledge in the world. It is a widely-known fact that most federal courts have two sets of law clerks who review filings before a judge ever sees them: a set of clerks who review attorney-filed motions, and a set of clerks who review pro se motions. In fact, criminal defendants representing themselves while in prison are often particularly prejudiced by the process. The esteemed retired 35-year United States Circuit Court Judge Richard Posner wrote an expose book upon his retirement describing the plight of the pro se prisoner filing for relief in court, referring to them as “the downtrodden — the pro se’s, which is to say litigants who have no lawyers, many of whom moreover have the further handicap of being prison inmates. My evolving attitude toward these unfortunates is central to my analysis [in this book].” Reforming the Federal Judiciary, Richard A. Posner, Sept. 7, 2017, pp. viii-ix.
Posner also reveals that — unlike the state courts which have four judges for every clerk — the federal courts of appeals have four clerks for every judge. And then there are the interns. Law students hoping to be lawyers one day and training at the courts of appeals for two years, during which time they have multiple jobs. One of those jobs is to be the clerk who reviews the pro se prisoner filings. In this way, they never become vested or realize the gravity of their decisions, which are very rarely opposed by the judges in the circuit court (or probably even reviewed by said judges in many instances).
That said, it is often best to hire a lawyer to assist especially in matters where one’s freedom is at stake. One can still research and contribute to their own defense and be involved in their case, but having counsel does place the motion in front of law clerks who have the opportunity to become vested in peoples’ cases and handle their jobs with care. Additionally, because lawyers have a legal responsibility to only submit truthful information to the courts, the clerks and judges will believe the contents of a lawyer’s briefing when they would tend to doubt the merits of a pro se prisoner’s briefing.
Whichever path you choose, we certainly wish you the best. And we’ll be here to help expose corruption should the courts prove to be dishonorable.
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