490 U.S. 296 (1989), 87-1490, Mallard v. United States District Court

Docket Nº:No. 87-1490
Citation:490 U.S. 296, 109 S.Ct. 1814, 104 L.Ed.2d 318, 57 U.S.L.W. 4487
Party Name:Mallard v. United States District Court
Case Date:May 01, 1989
Court:United States Supreme Court
 
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Page 296

490 U.S. 296 (1989)

109 S.Ct. 1814, 104 L.Ed.2d 318, 57 U.S.L.W. 4487

Mallard

v.

United States District Court

No. 87-1490

United States Supreme Court

May 1, 1989

Argued February 28, 1989

CERTIORARI TO THE UNITED STATES COURT OF APPEALS FOR

THE EIGHTH CIRCUIT

Syllabus

Petitioner Mallard, an attorney recently admitted to practice before the District Court, was selected to represent indigent inmates in their suit in that court against prison officials under 42 U.S.C. § 1983. After a Magistrate denied his motion to withdraw, he appealed to the District Court, contending that forcing him to represent indigent inmates in a complex action requiring trial skills he did not possess would compel him to violate his ethical obligation to take on only those cases he could handle competently and would exceed the court's authority under 28 U.S.C. § 1915(d), which provides that federal courts may "request" an attorney to represent any person claiming in forma pauperis status. The court upheld the Magistrate's decision, ruling, inter alia, that § 1915(d) empowers federal courts to make compulsory appointments in civil actions. The Court of Appeals denied without opinion Mallard's petition for a writ of mandamus to compel the District Court to allow his withdrawal.

Held:

1. Section 1915(d) does not authorize a federal court to require an unwilling attorney to represent an indigent litigant in a civil case. The section's operative term is "request," which bespeaks an intent not to authorize mandatory appointments of counsel. The fact that § 1915(c) -- which was adopted at the same time as § 1915(d) -- imposes mandatory duties on court officers and witnesses in in forma pauperis cases demonstrates that Congress knew how to require service when it deemed compulsory service appropriate. The conclusion that § 1915(d) evinces a desire to permit attorneys to decline representation of indigent litigants if in their view their personal, professional, or ethical concerns bid them do so is bolstered by the fact that Congress, when it passed § 1915(d) in 1892, [109 S.Ct. 1816] was aware of, but chose not to replicate, the language of various state statutes providing for the "appointment" or "assignment" of counsel in in forma pauperis proceedings; by the fact that no reported pre-1892 American or English decision held that a lawyer could be sanctioned for declining representation without compensation; and by the fact that other pre- and post-1892 federal statutes providing for court-ordered representation specify that the court could "assign" or "appoint" attorneys,

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rather than merely "request" that they serve. Contrary to respondent's assertion, construing § 1915(d) to allow courts to ask but not compel lawyers to represent indigent litigants does not render the section a nullity on the theory that statutory authorization is unnecessary for a court simply to ask, since the section may meaningfully be read to legitimize a court's request, and therefore to confront a lawyer with an important ethical decision. Pp. 300-308.

2. Mallard discharged his burden of proving that he was entitled to a writ of mandamus, and the Court of Appeals erred when it denied his application. In resting its decision solely on § 1915(d), the District Court plainly acted beyond its "jurisdiction." In addition, Mallard had no alternative remedy available to him. Moreover, the principal reasons for this Court's reluctance to condone use of the writ -- the undesirability of making a district court judge a litigant and the inefficiency of piecemeal appellate litigation -- are not present here. Pp. 308-310.

3. Respondents' contention that the federal courts possess inherent authority to require lawyers to serve will not be considered by this Court, since the lower courts did not invoke such authority in reaching their decisions. P. 310.

Reversed and remanded.

BRENNAN, J., delivered the opinion of the Court, in which REHNQUIST, C.J., and WHITE, SCALIA, and KENNEDY, JJ., joined. KENNEDY, J., filed a concurring opinion, post, p. 310. STEVENS, J., filed a dissenting opinion, in which MARSHALL, BLACKMUN, and O'CONNOR, JJ., joined, post, p. 311.

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BRENNAN, J., lead opinion

JUSTICE BRENNAN delivered the opinion of the Court.

We are called upon to decide whether 28 U.S.C. § 1915(d) authorizes a federal court to require an unwilling attorney to represent an indigent litigant in a civil case. We hold that it does not.

I

Section 1915(d) provides:

The court may request an attorney to represent any [person claiming in forma pauperis status] unable to employ counsel and may dismiss the case if the allegation of poverty is untrue, or if satisfied that the action is frivolous or malicious.

In Nelson v. Redfield Lithograph Printing, 728 F.2d 1003, 1005 (1984), the Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit ordered

the chief judge of each district to seek the cooperation of the bar associations and the federal practice committees of the judge's district to obtain a sufficient list of attorneys practicing throughout the district so as to supply the court with competent attorneys who will serve in pro bono situations,

such as in forma pauperis proceedings conducted under 28 U.S.C. § 1915. The District Court for the Southern District of Iowa heeded the Court of Appeals' command. Under the system in force since February, 1986, once the District Court has determined that an indigent party qualifies for representation under § 1915(d), the Clerk of the Court forwards a copy of the court file to the Volunteer Lawyers Project (VLP), a joint venture of the Legal Services Corporation of Iowa and the Iowa State Bar Association. The VLP keeps a copy of a roster prepared by the District Court of all attorneys admitted to practice before the court [109 S.Ct. 1817] and in good standing. After deleting the names of lawyers who have volunteered for VLP referrals of pro bono state court cases, the VLP selects lawyers from the list nonalphabetically for § 1915(d) assignments.1 Lawyers who

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are chosen under the plan may apply to the District Court for reimbursement of out-of-pocket costs. They may also keep any fee award provided by statute, but are not guaranteed even minimal compensation for their own services. The VLP assists lawyers assigned to litigate in areas of the law with which they are unfamiliar by providing written materials, holding periodic seminars, and facilitating consultations with experienced attorneys.

Petitioner Mallard was admitted to practice before the District Court in January, 1987, and entered his first appearance the following month. In June, 1987, he was asked by the VLP to represent two current inmates and one former inmate who sued prison officials under 42 U.S.C. § 1983, alleging that prison guards and administrators had filed false disciplinary reports against them, mistreated them physically, and endangered their lives by exposing them as informants. After reviewing the case file, Mallard filed a motion to withdraw with the District Court. In his motion, petitioner stated that he had no familiarity with the legal issues presented in the case, that he lacked experience in deposing and cross-examining witnesses, and that he would willingly volunteer his services in an area in which he possessed some expertise, such as bankruptcy and securities law. App. 4-8. The VLP opposed petitioner's motion, claiming that he was competent, that he had an ethical duty to do whatever was necessary to try the case, and that permitting an exception to the rule of assignment would create a dangerous precedent. A Magistrate denied petitioner's motion.

Mallard then appealed to the District Court. Although he reiterated his unfamiliarity with § 1983 actions, he contended that he should be permitted to withdraw not because of his inexperience in interpreting the statute and its case law, but

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because he was not a litigator by training or temperament. Forcing him to represent indigent inmates in a complex action requiring depositions and discovery, cross-examination of witnesses, and other trial skills, Mallard asserted, would compel him to violate his ethical obligation to take on only those cases he could handle competently and would exceed the court's authority under § 1915(d). Id. at 19-29. In an accompanying affidavit, Mallard added:

I do not like the role of confronting other persons in a litigation setting, accusing them of misdeeds, or questioning their veracity. Because of my reluctance to become involved in these activities, I do not feel confident that I would be effective in litigating a case such as the instant case.

Id. at 38.

Unmoved, the District Court upheld the Magistrate's decision. App. to Pet. for Cert. 2a-4a. Based on the quality of petitioner's brief in support of his motion to withdraw, the court pronounced him competent, notwithstanding his very slight acquaintance with trial litigation. The court also held that § 1915(d) empowers federal courts to make compulsory appointments in civil actions. In November, 1987, Mallard sought a writ of mandamus from the Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit to compel the District Court to allow his withdrawal. The Court of Appeals denied the petition without opinion. Id. at 1a. We granted certiorari to resolve a conflict among the Courts of Appeals over whether § 1915(d) authorizes compulsory assignments of attorneys [109 S.Ct. 1818] in civil cases.2 488 U.S. 815 (1988). We now reverse.

II

Interpretation of a statute must begin with the statute's language. E.g., United States v. Ron Pair Enterprises,

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Inc., 489 U.S. 235, 241 (1989); Landreth Timber Co. v. Landreth, 471 U.S. 681, 685 (1985). Section 1915(d)'s operative term is "request": "The court may request an attorney to represent" an indigent litigant. The import of the term seems plain. To request that somebody do something is to express a desire...

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