Mallard v. United States District Court for Southern District of Iowa/Dissent Stevens

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Case Syllabus
Opinion of the Court
Concurring Opinion
Dissenting Opinion

Justice STEVENS, with whom Justice MARSHALL, Justice BLACKMUN, and Justice O'CONNOR join, dissenting.

The relationship between a court and the members of its bar is not defined by statute alone. The duties of the practitioner are an amalgam of tradition, respect for the profession, the inherent power of the judiciary, and the commands that are set forth in canons of ethics, rules of court, and legislative enactments. This case involves much more than the parsing of the plain meaning of the word "request" as used in 28 U.S.C. § 1915(d). This case also does not concern the sufficiency of the lawyer's rea ons for declining an appointment [1] or the sanctions that may be imposed on an attorney who refuses to serve without compensation. There are, of course, many situations in which a lawyer may properly decline such representation. He or she may have a conflict of interest, may be engaged in another trial, may already have accepted more than a fair share of the uncompensated burdens that fall upon the profession, or may not have the qualifications for a particular assignment. As this case comes to us, however, the question is whether a lawyer may seek relief by way of mandamus from the court's request simply because he would rather do something else with his time. For me, the answer is quite plain.

A few weeks ago we held that the Virgin Islands Bar could not exclude nonresidents from its membership. See Bar- nard v. Thorstenn, 489 U.S. 546, 109 S.Ct. 1294, 103 L.Ed.2d 559 (1989). In that case, we expressly recognized the legitimacy of the bar's interest in requiring its entire membership to share in the burdens of providing representation to indigent defendants in criminal cases. [2] Id., at 557, 109 S.Ct. at 1299. That recognition reflects the fact that a court's power to require a lawyer to render assistance to the indigent is firmly rooted in the authority to define the terms and conditions upon which members are admitted to the bar, Frazier v. Heebe, 482 U.S. 641, 107 S.Ct. 2607, 96 L.Ed.2d 557 (1987); United States v. Hvass, 355 U.S. 570, 78 S.Ct. 501, 2 L.Ed.2d 496 (1958), [3] and to exercise "those powers necessary to protect the functioning of its own processes." Young v. United States ex rel. Vuitton et Fils S.A., 481 U.S. 787, 821, 107 S.Ct. 2124, 2145, 95 L.Ed.2d 740 (1987) (SCALIA, J., concurring in judgment). Cf. Sparks v. Parker, 368 So.2d 528 (Ala.) (rejecting constitutional challenges to compelled representation of indigent defendants), appeal dism'd, 444 U.S. 803, 100 S.Ct. 22, 62 L.Ed.2d 16 (1979). The lawyer's duty to provide professional assistance to the poor is part of the ancient traditions of the bar long recognized by this Court and the courts of the several States. [4] As Justice Field, then sitting on the California Supreme Court, declared more than a century ago:

"[I]t is part of the general duty of counsel to render their professional services to persons accused of crime, who are destitute of means, upon the appointment of the Court, when not inconsistent with their obligations to others; and for compensation, they must trust to the possible future ability of the parties. Counsel are not considered at liberty to reject, under circumstances of this character, the cause of the defenseless, because no provision for their compensation is made by law." Rowe v. Yuba County, 17 Cal. 61, 63 (1860).

Or, as Justice Sutherland declared for the Court more recently: "Attorneys are officers of the court, and are bound to render service when required by such an appointment." Powell v. Alabama, 287 U.S. 45, 73, 53 S.Ct. 55, 65, 77 L.Ed. 158 (1932).

Section 1915(d) embodies this authority to order counsel to represent indigent litigants even if it does not exhaust it. The statute was passed to give federal courts the same authority to allow in forma pauperis actions that the courts in the most progressive States exercised. In 1892, state courts had statutory authority to order lawyers to render assistance to indigent civil litigants in a dozen States, ante, at 304, and common-law power to appoint counsel in at least another 10 States. [5] Congress intended to "open the United States courts" to impoverished litigants and "to keep pace" with the laws of these "[m]any humane and enlightened States." H.R.Rep. No. 1079, 52d Cong., 1st Sess., 1-2 (1892). Congress also intended to ensure that the rights of litigants suing diverse parties in the most liberal of these States would not be defeated by the defendant's removal of the suit to federal court. Id., at 1. To be faithful to the congressional design of ensuring the poor litigant equal justice whether the suit is prosecuted in federal or state court, the statute should be construed to require counsel to serve, absent good reason, when requested to do so by the court. The Court's niggardly construction to the contrary departs from the enlightened laws that Congress intended to track and defeats Congress' beneficent purpose. [6]

I attach no particular significance to the difference, if any, between the ordinary meaning of the word "request" used in § 1915(d) and "assign" and "appoint" used in the various state statutes. See ante, at 302-303. The federal statute was introduced in the House and the Senate as an Act empoweringcourts to "assign" counsel for poor persons, 23 Cong.Rec. 5199, 6264 (1892), and uses the terms "assign" and "request" interchangeably. Significantly, it is entitled "An Act providing when plaintiff may sue as a poor person and when counsel shall be assigned by the court." Ch. 209, 27 Stat. 252. Every contemporary decision uses the word "assign" to describe the judge's authority to secure counsel for parties under § 1915(d). See Boyle v. Great Northern R. Co., 63 F. 539 (CC Wash.1894); Whelan v. Manhattan R. Co., 86 F. 219, 220-221 (CC SDNY 1898); Brinkley v. Louisville & N.R. Co., 95 F. 345, 353 (CC WD Tenn.1899); Phillips v. Louisville & N.R. Co., 153 F. 795 (CC ND Ala.1907), aff'd, 164 F 1022 (CA5 1908); United States ex rel. Randolph v. Ross, 298 F. 64 (CA6 1924). It is evident that the drafters of this statute understood these terms to impose similar obligations and simply assumed that members of our profession would perform their assigned tasks when requested to do so by the court.

The notion that this petitioner had an absolute right to have his "motion to withdraw" granted by the District Court-and therefore that a writ of mandamus may properly issue-is completely unacceptable to me. An attorney who has entered an appearance in a case may not withdraw without leave of court because the court's interest in making sure that a litigant is adequately represented and that the orderly prosecution of the lawsuit is not disrupted is paramount to a lawyer's personal interest in terminating a relationship with a client. See, e.g., Ohntrup v. Firearms Center, Inc., 802 F.2d 676 (CA3 1986); Mekdeci ex rel. Mekdeci v. Merrell National Laboratories, 711 F.2d 1510, 1521-1522 (CA11 1983). In this unique case the petitioner apparently filed his motion to withdraw without first entering an appearance-thus, the motion might more appropriately have been captioned as a "petition to be excused from performing a nonexistent duty to enter an appearance in a pending case." Indeed, the very fact that the petitioner considered it appropriate to ask the Magistrate to allow him to "withdraw" is evidence of his recognition of some duty to accept the appointment unless there was a valid excuse for declining it.

The program adopted by the District Court for the Southern District of Iowa to provide representation for indigent litigants was in operation when petitioner became a member of that court's bar. In my opinion his admission to practice implicitly included an obligation to participate in that program. [7] When a court has established a fair and detailed procedure for the assignment of counsel to indigent litigants, a formal request to a lawyer by the court pursuant to that procedure is tantamount to a command.

In context, I would therefore construe the word "request" in § 1915(d) as meaning "respectfully command." If that is not what Congress intended, the statute is virtually meaningless. There is no substance to the Court's speculation that Congress enacted this provision because of a concern that a court's requests to represent a poor litigant might otherwise be "disregarded in the mistaken belief that they are improper." Ante, at 308. There is no anecdotal or historical evidence to support this highly improbable speculation. [8] In my opinion Congress gave its endorsement to these judicial "requests," assuming that it would be "unthinkable" [9] for a lawyer to decline without an adequate reason.

I respectfully dissent.


This work is in the public domain in the United States because it is a work of the United States federal government (see 17 U.S.C. 105).