Study finds the obvious: 'pauper' cases seldom reach SCOTUS

By Frank Weir

Legal News

A new and innovative study by political science researchers at Michigan State University, including an undergraduate student, has confirmed the obvious.

If you're an indigent criminal defendant or appellant, SCOTUS is not likely to hear your case.

MSU political science/pre-law senior Sydney Hawthorne found indigents (which can include prisoners) are 30 percent less likely to have their cases heard.

Paupers are defined as low-income individuals, who often can't afford legal services such as filing petitions.

"My research question was, 'what influences the Supreme Court's decision to grant or deny review of a case?'" said Hawthorne, of Grand Blanc.

"There are thousands of cases each year that want to get reviewed before the Supreme Court, so how do they beat the odds?"

Last week, Hawthorne was named the grand prize winner of the Spring Undergraduate Research and Arts Forum's social science/humanities division. In 2010, she received the College of Social Science's Dean Apprenticeship, which provided the research funds.

Research on Supreme Court agenda setting is quite rare said her faculty adviser Ryan Black, assistant professor of political science at MSU. And there's no published research that appropriately tests what makes cases less likely to be granted review, he said.

"The court's agenda-setting process is how it picks the cases that ultimately will be used to set legal policy on topics as wide ranging as the death penalty to free speech to the rights of the criminally accused," Black said.

"So we should care about the process by which the court, to borrow from the title of a book, 'decides to decide' cases."

The student-faculty team analyzed 403 petitions filed from October 1992 to June 1993, coding variables from archival data and personal papers of former Justice Harry Blackmun.

The team also discovered that unpublished opinions by lower courts - often cut-and-dry cases that courts don't feel need publishing - were 50 percent less likely to be heard by the Supreme Court.

At the same time, the study revealed that the number of petitions filed with the Supreme Court has increased, while the number of petitions granted appeal has decreased, especially for paupers.

From 1935 to 2004, the Supreme Court granted review in about eight percent of all paid petitions and only one percent of pauper petitions.

The court receives about 8,000 to 9,000 petitions per year.

"The whole decision process is pretty one-sided to begin with," Black said.

"But if you're at the bottom of the food chain, it's pretty dismal in terms of odds."

So why the discrepancy?

Black said since courts are generally interested in granting review to cases that have broad implications for legal policy, a skilled and experienced attorney is necessary to be recognized by the Supreme Court.

Furthermore, "The time period we analyzed is one in which the justices have relatively conservative judicial preferences. If we were to go back farther in time, when the court was more liberal, we would likely find a smaller anti-pauper bias," Black said.

While much of this may seem like common sense, Hawthorne and Black said the numbers are staggering.

"Doing this research project made me realize that I'm interested in constitutional law," Hawthorne said.

Published: Mon, Aug 22, 2011

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