Kat Aaron at the American Prospect has a fascinating/devastating profile of Detroit’s 36th District Court, one of many civil courts in Detroit, and across the country, that are underfunded and failing their citizens. Civil court, as Aaron puts it, “is where the problems of income inequality and unaffordable housing and low wages and unemployment and poor education play out.”
The 36th has the same taut feeling I’ve experienced in prisons or welfare offices: a mix of boredom, anxiety, anger, power, powerlessness, and indifference. It’s as if all the exhalations and sighs of all the litigants who have passed through the building are trapped in the cinderblock halls.
At the 36th, 31 judges hear more than half a million cases a year, ranging from traffic violations to bedbugs to evictions. In most of these cases, the defendants often represent themselves (unlike in criminal cases, civil courts don’t provide lawyers to those who can’t afford them) and are often uninformed about the legal process, the paperwork needed, or the mandatory dress code.
“I don’t even know why I came down here,” Armstrong told me in the hallway. “It’s just a waste of time.” He’s living on a fixed income, he said. I asked if he thought about getting a lawyer. He couldn’t afford to hire someone, he said, and didn’t think anyone would help him, and, no, he hadn’t heard of legal aid. I mentioned a new self-help center for people without lawyers at the nearby family court. He said he’d check it out. “I don’t have anything to lose.”
The civil courts are in crisis in Detroit and across the country. There’s no other word for it: Civil courts have inadequate funding, not enough lawyers, and far too many litigants. But there should be another word, because “crisis” means a sudden, shocking eruption of disaster. The civil courts are, and have been, in a stagnant state of failure for decades. It’s bad in Detroit, but it’s bad everywhere.