Rules of civil procedure presuppose a level playing field where litigants have structured opportunities to develop and present their claims to a neutral fact-finder. In millions of cases—the vast majority processed by state courts today—the field is neither level nor fair. Instead, enormous numbers of small dollar value cases are disposed of mechanically, without meaningful adjudication. High-volume state court dockets involve serious asymmetries of power and knowledge, where plaintiffs’ lawyers are able to manipulate or short-circuit the rules against unrepresented and generally unsophisticated low-income defendants. As a recent study by the National Center for State Courts (NCSC) concluded, “[t]he idealized picture of an adversarial system in which both parties are represented by competent attorneys who can assert all legitimate claims and defenses is an illusion.”
Profoundly harmful consequences befall defendants who, caught in these overburdened, high-volume dockets, are too often unaware of and unable to protect their rights. Judgments are entered without meaningful scrutiny of their substantive or procedural correctness. Civil judgments carry long-term consequences. Evictions frequently lead to homelessness. Judgments that appear on credit reports or that surface as the result of professional data-mining lead prospective employers and landlords to deny jobs and housing. Post-judgment enforcement includes wage garnishment and asset seizures. Without significant reform, too many of the generally low-income defendants in these high-volume dockets suffer wholesale denials of justice, further exacerbating economic inequities.