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Pro Ses Get Their Day in the Court of Last Resort

Back in September, I posted on the compelling case of Winkelman v. City of Parma, a 6th Circuit decision barring parents from enforcing their disabled children's rights under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) unless represented by counsel. And while we'd all agree that parents might be better off with attorneys in these kinds of matters, the sad reality for the Winkelmans was that they couldn't afford the thousands of dollars that this kind of case often costs. Moreover, to add insult to injury, in a related case, the Ohio Bar brought suit for unauthorized practice of law against a dad who succeeded in winning thousands of dollars in educational services for his son in an IDEA action against a school board. I ended my post with the hope that the Supreme Court would grant cert to stop this madness.

The Court did grant cert, and today, the no-longer pro se Winkelmans have their day before the Supreme Court. Scotus Blog previews the arguments here. The Supreme Court won't address the substance of the Winkelman's claims under the IDEA. Rather, the Court will hear the narrow issue of whether parents are aggrieved parties under the IDEA such that they can enforce rights under the statute, as well as whether Congress intended to allow parents to represent their children pro se in IDEA actions. 

What's most interesting to me is that the parents who couldn't afford a lawyer to represent them in a suit against the school district have now secured able representation by Jean-Claude Andre free of charge. Like the Ugly Betty wallflower who loses weight and acquires a glam wardrobe to emerge as a beautiful and desirable swan, the Winkelman's case has undergone a similar transformation, from a spurned stepchild that no lawyer would adopt without a substantial fee to an attractive plum coveted by multiple law firm suitors.   

It's not clear whether the Winkelmans would have embarked on a pro se path had they been able to afford an attorney. And their Supreme Court case, while an important vindication, doesn't do much to address the underlying problem of the cost of pursuing IDEA litigation. While I appreciate the heroic efforts of lawyers like Andre who devote their time (and let's not kid ourselves: Supreme Court litigation is time and labor intensive) at no charge to bringing cases to the Supreme Court, let's not forget that there's a need for resources at the lower level. After all, if the Winkelmans could have afforded counsel at the lower level, the case would never have reached the Supreme Court.

Posted by Carolyn Elefant on February 27, 2007 at 06:31 PM | Permalink | Comments (1)


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