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Landmark Cases of the U.S. Supreme Court

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WebQuest: In Forma Pauperis Petitions

The Gideon case is about poverty and fairness in the criminal justice system.

When the Supreme Court decided the case of Gideon v. Wainwright in 1963, it ruled that states must provide lawyers for poor people accused of felony crimes because the right to a lawyer is a fundamental right. 

Even with this ruling, people who are extremely poor still face many obstacles when they go to trial and when want to appeal a decision. 

The Supreme Court did not have to consider Earl Gideon’s appeal; it chose to hear it. 

When the Constitution was first written, the Supreme Court was obligated to hear and to decide every appeal that came before it.  After a while, the Court was getting so many appeals, it could not reasonably hear them all.  Since 1891, Congress has passed a number of laws that allow the Court to decide which cases to accept on appeal.  Now people who want to appeal to the Supreme Court must submit a request called a petition of certiorari (or cert.)

Usually, when someone submits a petition of certiorari, he or she also has to pay fees to the Court and to provide the court with many copies of the important documents related to the case and appeal.  A person who cannot afford to pay the fees, (usually around $300,) or to provide multiple copies of documents may request that these requirements are waived.  This kind of request is called an in forma pauperis petition.  The term comes from Latin.  If the petition is granted, the person appealing can proceed without paying any fees or costs.

There are rules about the steps people must take before the Supreme Court will decide whether to hear a case.  Look at the Supreme Court’s website and read the rules about how to file a petition (or writ) of certiorari and an in forma pauperis petition (You only have to read the first two pages, but you can read more if you want to.) 

  1. In your opinion, are these instructions clear?  Do you think most people would be able to follow these directions without the help of a lawyer?  Explain your answer.
  2. Did you notice that there are special rules for poor people who are already in jail?  (This is on the second page.)  Why do you think these rules are different?
    • Earl Gideon was in prison in Florida at the time he petitioned the Supreme Court to hear his case.  He wrote his petition to the Court by hand, asking that his conviction be overturned because he could not afford and was therefore denied help from a lawyer.
    • Optional:  If you have not already seen a copy of his petition, you may view it here:
      1. Photo: Gideon's Petition
  3. How often do you think that in forma pauperis petitions are filed with the Court?  Estimate how many petitions per year are filed.  Write your estimate here:  _____
  4. How successful do you think most of these petitioners are in getting the Court to agree to hear their cases?  Write your percentage estimate here: ____
  5. In the article The Writ of Certiorari: Deciding Which Cases to Review, Peter J. Messitte looks at the numbers of paid and unpaid petitions.  Go to the article and scan down to the first question.  Using information from that article, fill in the data here:
    1. How many paid petitions for certiorari are filed, on average, each year? _____
    2. How many of those paid petitions are granted? _____
    3. What percentage is that? _____
    4. How many in forma pauperis petitions for certiorari are filed, on average, each year? _____
    5. How many of those petitions are granted? _____
    6. What percentage is that? _____
    7. Why do you think these percentages differ?  Explain your answer and be prepared to share your ideas with other students. _____

Optional extension

The article mentioned above comes from a blog about the Supreme Court called SCOTUSblog (SCOTUS stands for Supreme Court of the United States).  It is created by attorneys and others who watch the Court’s actions and decisions very carefully. 

In addition to giving comments and analysis about current cases before the Court, the blog has many statistics about the Court.  Visit the blog and decide if you want to read about a recent case before the Court or if you want to read about statistics. 

Recent Case

If you want to read about a recent case, from the homepage, go to the Commentary and Analysis section and choose any case that is looks interesting to you.  Read at least one commentary and comment on in the space provided below.

  1. The commentary that interested me was called _________________________ and it was posted on this date____________. 
  2. I thought the blog was interesting because:
Court Statistics

If you would rather learn about statistics related to the Court, visit the blogs Super StatPack section, select and download one of the StatPacks and use it to answer the questions below.

  1. The statistic that interests me most is: ______________________________________
  2. I thought that was interesting because: ______________________________________

Be prepared to share your answers with other students. 

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