Two New Cases This Week

Earlier this week, the Supreme Court agreed to hear two cases involving questions of criminal law. In Hall v. Florida, the Court will evaluate Florida's standards for determining whether capital defendants are mentally retarded. (Note: "mentally retarded" is a legal term.) In Robers v. United States, the question presented involves how much a defendant has to pay in restitution for a fraudulently obtained loan.

The two cases have something else in common; both were filed in forma pauperis, or IFP, which means the petitioners do not have to pay filing fees to the Supreme Court. Although the Court usually grants a few IFP cases each Term, generally, these petitions are not followed as closely by courtwatchers as the "paid" petitions. Note, however, that IFP petitioners are not necessarily pro se. In other words, they are not necessarily representing themselves, although many are. In fact, the petitioners in both Hall and Robers are represented by counsel.

In forma pauperis cases can be found in the lower courts as well. In fact, the Supreme Court granted cert in such a case last spring. In Burnside v. Walters, the district court dismissed an indigent plaintiff's complaint without giving him an opportunity to amend it, and the Sixth Circuit affirmed in an unpublished (and not so not precedential) decision. After the Court granted cert, the Sixth Circuit issued a published (and precedential) opinion in another case, holding that such amendments should be allowed. Because the Sixth Circuit's new precedent eliminated the circuit split that likely led the Court to take the case in the first place, the Court vacated the Sixth Circuit's decision in Burnside and remanded the case for further proceedings. SCOTUSblog provided a useful summary of Burnside's saga.