This article was written by Brian Vukadinovich, an experienced pro se litigant and the author of Motion for Justice: I Rest My Case.
Some might say hefty court fees and high judicial salaries are necessary to the smooth running of the courts. That explanation might be supportable if pro se litigants actually got the justice they pay for. Too often, once a pro se litigant plops down his or her court fees, high paid judges, particularly in the federal system, don’t give their cases the time they need. So, pro se litigants have to think hard about whether to pursue or appeal their cases.
The Pay-as-you-go Structure For Pro Se Litigants
The landscape for pro se litigants is treacherous.
- A potential litigant gets sued or is harmed and needs to sue.
- He does lots of work to decipher the law and determine the cost of court.
- The fees are hefty, but somehow he manages to pay them.
- After paying hundreds of dollars, he gets to court.
- The lawyer for the other side, of course, wants to win. So he does all he can to make the pro se litigant lose. There’s no criticism of the lawyer. That’s his job.
- When the litigant makes mistakes, the judge is patronizing, impatient, or downright biased (not in all cases but in many).
- The attorney capitalizes on the mistakes.
- The judge wants the litigant out of the court. The judge might even think he’s doing the litigant a favor by encouraging him to settle. Worse, the judge might actively attempt to usher the pro se litigant out with unfair decisions.
- The pro se litigant loses. He forfeits all his court fees and has wasted hours that he’ll never get back.
- Then the pro se litigant is faced with the dilemma of having to take his/her case to an appellate court.
- For this, there is a fee.
If you know civil procedure, you’ll already see pitfalls for the pro se litigant on an appeal. The process begins with a series of fees, including appellate court filing fees, record fees, and even fees that must be paid to the lower court. One wonders what the real goal is with high court fees and other costs.
Appealing a Case is a Gamble
The basic federal appellate court filing fee is $300. It costs $200 to file a petition for rehearing. As in most state courts, once a litigant loses in a federal appellate court, they must resort to the Supreme Court. The U.S. Supreme Court isn’t required to review all cases as a matter of right. They must hear some cases, but most are discretionary. The U.S. Supreme Court reviews approximately 3% of the cases filed. They get 100 cases. They hear 3. Unfortunately, this tiny number has no affect on court fees. They stay the same.
Apparently, court’s don’t mind collecting money from people for filing cases that they essentially will refuse to review. But there’s more. Not only does the court have your money and you stand a minimal chance of getting your case reviewed, there is the booklet. The highest court in each jurisdiction is particular about how you present your appeal. The U.S. Supreme Court, for instance, requires you to file a booklet with a certain opaque unglazed typeset, 6 1/8 by 9 1/4 inches in size, and not less than 60 pounds in weight. The booklet must be bound with saddle stitch or perfect binding preferred.
Then, 40 copies of this booklet must be filed. Most people aren’t able to do all of this without an expensive specialty printer. It is ridiculous and essentially immoral for the Supreme Court to require people to spend so much to file their cases and print elaborate booklets. If your case is not “selected” for review, you’ve lost your money. It’s like gambling, with the courts being the “house”.
High Judicial Salaries, Low Workload
Federal district court judges earn $199,000 a year, way above the average pro se litigant’s salary. Court of appeal judges make $211,200 a year, and associate supreme court justices make $244,000. That is just salary. It doesn’t include benefits packages. When they retire, these judges collect a lifetime pension in the amount of their last yearly salary. It seems unfair that the government pays these salaries while at the same time it fleeces the people by requiring high filing fees for their day in court.
An even greater insult is that most litigants never really get their day in court because highly paid judges dismiss the majority of cases they’re paid to adjudicate. Even without reading about judicial salaries, one could come to the conclusion that the primary goal of the justice system isn’t really about “justice”. The court system is essentially using people as cash cows with little to no regard for justice. When you look at judicial salaries and benefits and the dismissal of so many cases, the fleecing of pro se litigants becomes more obvious. Something is wrong with this picture!
The Landscape for Judges (My Opinion)
I have very serious questions as to how much work these judges are actually putting in. My federal trial was a week long, and I didn’t see any activity whatsoever going on in any of the other courtrooms on any day during that entire week. That is a red flag, which strongly suggests that judges aren’t doing much of anything. Yes, I know they have summary judgments and so forth that I didn’t see activity of, but it seems there should be some hearings or trials going on. There wasn’t.
My opinion is that judges, at least in federal courts, are wiping most of the peoples’ cases off of the dockets on summary judgments. This explains the ghost town atmosphere in most of the courts around the country. Courts don’t usually keep track of the number of summary judgments granted. The reason is obvious. They don’t want the public to know that the vast majority of cases are wiped out on summary judgment. It’s time to hold judges accountable for their laziness and indifference to peoples’ claims against corporations and government agencies.
The Last Word
Judges might indeed earn every penny they get, but that is not evident in all court systems. In fact, no court system can explain the pay-as-you-go structure for pro se litigants whose cases are quickly thrown out and a get-hefty-judicial-salary-for-little-work system for judges.The courts don’t mind collecting hefty filing fees and other court fees from pro se’s, but after doing so, they prefer not to hear from them. For the most part, their cases get thrown out. This needs to change! For more information about the federal court system from a pro se point of view, see a recent article about Brian and his book, Motion for Justice: I Rest My Case.